Potatoes aren’t bad for you. But the ways most Americans eat them — as french fries and chips — are. The way to resolve this problem — which is currently at the center of a debate over revised rules for school lunches — is not to ban or strictly limit potato consumption, but to encourage healthier preparation of the tuber. Another avenue is to provide incentives for schools to get more food from local sources.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is in the process of updating its guidelines for school lunches for the first time in 15 years. Part of the rewrite proposes to limit the serving of potatoes, among other foods.
The rewrite is required by the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act passed by Congress last year to improve the nutrition of school lunches. The bill also increases funding for the school lunch program.
The rules aim to increase the amount of fruits and vegetables served to school children, but they propose to limit starchy vegetables to 1 cup per week for lunch and disallow them in school-provided breakfasts. In addition to potatoes, starchy vegetables include corn, green peas and lima beans.
The proposed rules have raised the ire of Maine’s senators and the potato industry, who rightly argue that potatoes have health benefits. Ashley Hebert of Madawaska, of “Bachelorette” fame, got into the game last week by Tweeting in favor of the USDA regulations. “Schoolchildren need healthy lunches — not fries every day,” she tweeted, linking to a petition in support of the changes.
Sen. Collins, who has long opposed the rule change, is now working on a solution that focuses on how potatoes are prepared as part of the school nutrition program. This makes sense as long as the nutrition rules are not gutted or shelved.
Mary Ellen Camire, a professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at the University of Maine, has some good advice in this regard. She recommends eating small, new potatoes, which are available at the beginning of the season, because they contain a type of starch that is harder to break down into sugar. Colored potatoes offer visual variety and contain antioxidants.
Steaming or microwaving potatoes (with peels on) helps maintain nutrients and baking wedges or sticks is better than frying, the professor says.
A larger issue, as highlighted by a report released last week by U.S. PIRG, is that American agricultural subsidies go to large industrial farms rather than to smaller local farms. This makes it much less expensive to grow large commodity crops.
Most of the money goes to corn and soybeans. Between 1995 and 2010, according to the report, nearly $17 billion in taxes subsidized four common food additives — corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, corn starch and soy oils (also known as hydrogenated vegetable oils).
Since 1995, taxpayers spent only $262 million subsidizing apples, which is the only significant federal subsidy of fresh fruits or vegetables.
In Bangor, taxpayers support $107,623 each year in commodity subsidies, but only $1,665 each year for subsidies for apples, PIRG calculated.
The federal government has found ways to help schools buy healthy food — on a very limited scale. The Portland School Department participated in a USDA Sustainable Agricultural Research Education grant, which allowed it to buy more local foods. The department used local apples for its lunches and snacks, strawberries for breakfast breads and shortcake, carrots for its salad bar, tomatoes for salads and sandwiches and including summer squash in its pasta sauce meant it needed less salt.
The grant also aimed to address concerns such as school’s limited time available to prepare foods and their need for a year-round supply of fruits and vegetables.
Continuing and expanding such work would go a long way toward improving school lunches without having to play one potato, two potato.