PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — For more than a year now, the state’s Congressional delegation has been fighting for the potato.
Last year, government officials said participants in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Women’s Infants and Children Program, which serves low-income pregnant women and their children, couldn’t use federal money to buy white potatoes. The Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences, also called for the USDA-backed school lunch program to limit the number of potatoes that are served in the school breakfast and lunch programs. The proposed rule would implement the institute’s recommendation that starchy vegetables be limited to 1 cup per week to encourage students to try new vegetables.
U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe continued to argue against the proposed rule change in recent weeks by writing letters to key government officials. In a May 26 letter to Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Snowe said that the proposed rule to limit total servings of starchy vegetables such as potatoes, corn, green peas, and lima beans to 1 cup per week and eliminating these vegetables from breakfast meals is not grounded in scientific data and does not make economic sense.
Obama has founded the Let’s Move campaign to curb rising childhood obesity rates across the nation. One of her goals is to give USDA the authority to set nutritional standards for all foods regularly sold in schools during the school day, including vending machines, the “a la carte” lunch lines, and school stores.
“With an obesity epidemic plaguing the health and development of our nation’s children, it is critical any regulation involving the nutrient intake of our young people is based on sound nutrition science,” Snowe said in one letter. “Astonishingly, USDA’s proposal to reduce the intake of potatoes ignores the fact that a medium potato contains more than 200 milligrams more potassium than a banana, its closest rival, and contains as much fiber as broccoli. With the recent 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans indicating potassium and fiber as two nutrients lacking in the diets of adults and children, USDA should focus on including, not excluding, a wide array of foods to combat this deficiency.”
“The USDA should not move forward with a rule the agency itself has estimated will cost $6.8 billion over five years that will potentially affect approximately half of the calories children consume in a day until a thorough review of the most up-to-date and accurate nutritional science available has been completed,” Snowe continued.
One medium-size baked potato has just 110 calories and provides 620 milligrams of potassium if eaten with the skin, according to figures from the Presque Isle based Maine Potato Board. It also contains more vitamin C than one medium tomato. The board has long battled to quash the assumption that potatoes are unhealthy and several years ago launched a major advertising campaign to promote the nutritional benefits of the potato.
Snowe, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and Rep. Mike Michaud have consistently maintained that it isn’t the potato that is unhealthy, it is how people tend to prepare them. Many schools are serving fried potatoes or mashed potatoes heaped in butter or covered in gravy, instead of baking them or boiling them. All three also have written letters to Vilsak decrying proposed rules that they feel are unfairly targeting the potato.
At a March Senate hearing on the USDA budget, Collins held a brown-skinned spud in one hand and a head of lettuce in the other. Lettuce hasn’t come under scrutiny by federal officials. She pointed out that one medium white potato contains nearly twice the vitamin C as the entire head of lettuce and publicly questioned why potatoes were being picked on.
Linda Beaulieu of Presque Isle has three children who attended school in SAD 1 in Presque Isle. She said Saturday that she feels that the proposed rule change is “silly,” but she likes much of what is behind Obama’s Let’s Move campaign.
“My kids loved when their school had a baked potato bar with salsa and low fat cheese,” she said. “But I also know that they ate meals like pizza and french fries far too often for my taste. Why are they just targeting the potato? Why doesn’t the government concentrate on getting pizza, chicken nuggets and cheeseburgers off the menu?”
Karen Hartin, who has a child in SAD 29 in Houlton, agreed. She said that her high school age son is only being served french fries at school “once a week, on average.” According to the high school’s lunch menu for May and June, students are offered veggie sticks with dip, fresh fruit or salad and wheat rolls every day. But they also can get various types of pizza, chicken burgers and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches each day. According to the Presque Isle and Caribou High School websites, pizza and a salad bar is available every day. At Fort Kent Community High School, french fries also are served once a week on average, with salad and fruit available each day.
“To me, that is the real problem,” Hartin argued. “Very few teenagers are going to fill their tray with salad, fruit and a wheat roll if a steaming tray of pizza is sitting right in front of them. I don’t fault the schools, to be honest, because they have to cook what the government sends them. The government needs to stop focusing on the potato and instead stop sending some of this junk to schools across the nation.”
The USDA is set to release final rules in coming months, and put them into effect in the 2012-2013 school year,