When ABC “Bachelorette” Ashley Hebert of Madawaska sent a tweet this week in favor of getting french fries out of school lunches, it was the latest shot in the potato war that has been raging in Washington, D.C., for more than a year.
Hebert, who studied to be a dentist, was using the social networking service to support the proposed changes in U.S. Department of Agriculture school lunch guidelines that would severely curtail the servings of vegetables including white potatoes, corn, lima beans and green peas to one cup a week.
“Schoolchildren need healthy lunches — not fries every day,” she tweeted, linking to a petition in favor of the changes.
Potatoes have gotten a bad rap lately, with a Harvard study that came out this summer showing that the tuber topped the list of foods that cause weight gain. A different report released in July showed that Maine is now the 27th fattest state in the nation, up from the 35th fattest in 2009. And childhood obesity is a major national concern, with levels more than tripling over the past 30 years to 19.6 percent in 2008, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But while changing the school lunch guidelines has solid support from many, including the nonprofit advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest as well as the Bachelorette, it also has serious opposition.
One of the loudest voices against it comes from another native of The County, where potatoes are a major crop and economic engine — U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Caribou.
“The truth is that the potato is fat-free, cholesterol-free and low in calories,” Collins said in a column she wrote for the Aroostook Republican & News, a Caribou area weekly newspaper, according to her staff. “The potato contains many more nutrients than iceberg lettuce, which USDA has not proposed limiting. This just doesn’t make sense.”
Collins has been leading a bipartisan group of senators in the fight for the potato. U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe is also opposing the change, and last week called it a “faulty policy whose implications have not been fully considered.”
Advocates of reducing the starchy vegetables have said that politicians working against the change want to block “common-sense nutrition guidelines” despite high childhood obesity rates, according to a bulletin from the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
“The french fry industry and other food interests are working to get Congress to stop USDA from finalizing these sensible school nutrition standards,” it stated. “The goal of seeing healthy school lunches in cafeterias across the country will be in serious jeopardy.”
Collins’ office said that the proposed rule change, part of the Senate agricultural appropriations bill, is likely to come up for consideration in the next few weeks. When it does, the senator will offer an amendment that would make the USDA leave the starchy vegetables alone.
That would be good news to many in Maine, including Ellen Demmons, president-elect of the Maine School Nutrition Association. She said Friday that it seems the proposed guideline change was just a knee-jerk reaction to the Harvard study and an “easy fix” to soothe vocal food advocates, including the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Almost no schools in Maine have a deep fryer and most have been serving fewer french fries anyway, she said.
“It’s one of my favorite vegetables,” Demmons said Friday, listing the ways the students of her RSU 21 district will eat it. “My kids love mashed potatoes, baked potatoes, garlic-smashed potatoes — they are still eating potatoes. Just in healthier forms.”
She and others have suggested that it does make more sense to curtail the use of fried potatoes in school lunches.
“All good intentions sometimes get misled a little bit,” said Don Flannery, executive director of the Maine Potato Board. “Yes, kids need to have a nutritional diet. But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater … It’s not fair to potatoes.”
However, pediatric dentist Jonathan Shenkin of Augusta has taken up the anti-potato pennant.
“The potato in school lunches may seem an innocuous addition to the menu. However, studies show that french fries and other potato products are a real problem in children’s diets,” he wrote to Collins recently. “While french fries served daily in school is in the interest of the Maine potato industry, it is definitely not in the best interest of the health and well-being of our children.”
Bruce Mailloux, superintendent of RSU 20 in the Belfast area, said Friday that from his perspective the whole fight is “incredibly frustrating.”
“Today, it’s potatoes. Tomorrow it will be rice,” he said. “Potatoes are a staple of our diet in the state of Maine and have been for a long time … No food is good in huge quantities. Everything in reasonable amounts in a balanced diet is fine.”
Another major consideration for him is that the change would be expensive.
Collins wrote that the proposed rule to reduce potatoes and other starchy vegetables would impose additional and unanticipated costs of up to $7 billion over five years on the nation’s school systems.
It also could hurt the Maine potato industry. Maine potato farmers planted nearly 55,000 acres in 2010, with a yield of 29,000 pounds per acre, for a harvest of 1.6 billion pounds with a value of $159.2 million.
“Anytime you lose a market — and you’re losing that market in every state — it’s a huge impact on the potato industry,” Flannery said.
Mailloux said he hopes the matter will be resolved in a potato-positive way.
“I just think people jump on bandwagons,” he said. “Is it political? Or is it really about the potato?”