Potatoes may regain status in school lunches

Posted June 21, 2011, at 8:17 p.m.

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Pressure against proposed changes to nutritional guidelines is causing federal officials to take another look at what foods they will recommend schools across the nation serve their students.

The increased scrutiny could improve the role of the potato in the National School Lunch and Breakfast Program. Members of Maine’s congressional delegation have expressed concerns that the potato has been unfairly targeted by federal officials.

In a newly released report, the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee urged the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service to issue a new, less costly rule updating nutritional standards for the school meal program. The report hints that the USDA has been too hasty in drafting the nutrition standards governing school meals and urged “restraint” and “practical timelines” for future changes.

U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins and U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud first contacted the USDA last year after the department issued a proposal to reduce the servings of potatoes to just one per week under the school meals program.

In the House committee report, officials stated that they had received significant feedback from school districts and state representatives who have spoken out against the “overly aggressive implementation schedule” and  “unrealistic demands on changes in nutrition content” related to school meals. School district and state representatives have said that such changes in nutrition content could lead to burdensome costs, which could climb to $7 billion over five years.

The feedback and financial figures led the House to direct the USDA to “issue a new proposed rule that would not require an increase in the cost of providing school meals.”

Snowe said in a statement earlier this week that she agreed with House language, contending that limiting potato consumption would “drive up the cost of healthy meals for our students.” Snowe also said the proposed rule to cut back potato consumption “is not based on sound nutritional science.”

“I am pleased the House has recognized the flawed rationale for this rule and directed the USDA to re-evaluate its proposal for both its cost and nutritional implications on our nation’s students,” said Snowe. “As we grapple with both an obesity epidemic plaguing the health and development of our nation’s children and a soaring national debt topping $14 trillion, it is essential we consider both sound nutritional and economic data before moving forward with this policy.”

For more than a year, Snowe, Collins and Michaud have 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.

Snowe, Collins and Michaud have written letters opposing the rule or spoken to key government officials to voice opposition to limiting potato consumption. The trio has maintained that it isn’t the potato that is unhealthy, it is how people tend to prepare it. All three also have written letters to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsak.

One medium-size baked potato has 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 tried 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.

Don Flannery, executive director of the Maine Potato Board, said he agreed with the House committee’s advice to the USDA.

“Vegetables like potatoes are an important part of a balanced diet,” said Flannery. “Taking them off the menu is not the way to go. While it makes sense to limit the intake of french fries, we shouldn’t limit access to potatoes that are prepared in a healthy way. If these guidelines as currently drafted go through and potato consumption is reduced, it will lead to lost sales for our farmers and businesses in Maine.”

The comment period on the proposed rule closed on April 13, Kathryn Bruns, Snowe’s press secretary, said Tuesday. Since this rule was proposed in January, the USDA has until 18 months after that date to propose a final rule.

Snowe said in a statement Tuesday that she is optimistic about the outcome.

“With the abundance of empirical data and evidence supporting the nutritional and economic benefits of the white potato, I can’t help but be optimistic about the outcome of the proposed rule,” said Snowe. “Coupled with the recent House-passed language acknowledging the cost benefits of the potato in relation to other vegetables of comparable nutrients, the USDA would be well advised to ensure the white potato is a part of the balanced breakfasts and lunches offered to millions of students in public schools nationwide.”

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