June 24, 2018
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Healthy potatoes shouldn’t face school cafeteria discrimination

By Susan Collins, Special to the BDN

The president recently admonished us to “eat our peas,” but, ironically, that would be more difficult for our children to do if new guidelines from the Department of Agriculture go into effect. USDA has proposed eliminating certain vegetables, including green peas, corn, lima beans and white potatoes, from the school breakfast program and limiting their serving to a total of one cup per week in the school lunch program. That means if a school were to serve a medium baked potato Monday, it could not serve green peas, corn or potatoes for the rest of the week.

It is no surprise that the USDA’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans call for Americans to eat more vegetables. The guidelines list four “nutrients of concern” — potassium, dietary fiber, calcium and vitamin D — and state that intake of these nutrients is currently “low enough to be of public health concern” in both children and adults. If concern about a lack of these nutrients is driving USDA decision making, it makes more sense to retain good sources of these critical nutrients and promote more healthy preparation of the foods that contain them.

Eating just one medium-sized potato provides 45 percent of the daily recommended value of Vitamin C, a great antioxidant. Potatoes are low-fat and a good source of several B vitamins, the skins provide substantial dietary fiber, and one medium baked potato has more potassium than a banana.

This ill-advised proposed regulation seems to be driven by concern that children eat too many french fries and potato chips. I agree, but there are many other ways to prepare this excellent vegetable — baked, boiled, roasted, in soups, chowders and stews, to name but a few. For example, Maine school food service administrators tell me that many kids rave about baked potato bars where they can top potatoes with broccoli, shaved carrots, beans, chives, vegetarian chili and salsa.

Even though the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey finds that french fries make up only between 1.5 percent to 3.07 percent of the daily calories typically consumed by an American child, I have asked the USDA to work with schools and focus on healthier ways to prepare this vegetable, rather than limiting or eliminating it from our school lunch and breakfast programs.

Sound science — the research that confirms the high nutritional value of potatoes and other vegetables — is an essential part of resolving this issue. But so, too, is common sense based on our real-world observations and experiences.

The potato has been a staple of the human diet in much of the world for centuries, even thousands of years. Yet, the obesity epidemic we now confront is a complex phenomenon of recent times. Clearly, the problem lies elsewhere and won’t be solved by oversimplification.

There is also an economic issue. Potatoes are an affordable option for our schools and, in many parts of the country including Maine, are locally grown. USDA’s own estimates indicate that the proposed rule would unnecessarily impose additional and unanticipated costs of approximately $6.8 billion over five years on our school systems, which are already struggling with tight budgets.

For farmers here in Maine, and many other states, the potato is an important crop. If the potato is subject to this unfair discrimination, farm families and farm communities will suffer.

Encouraging the consumption of a wide variety of wholesome foods — locally grown whenever possible — that are prepared in health-conscience ways promotes sound eating habits and strong rural economies.

I fully support the USDA’s goal to increase the availability of all fruits, vegetables and whole grains in the school meal programs, and to ensure the foods served in the meal programs are prepared to meet the nutritional needs of children. The department’s proposed rule, however, goes too far. It would unnecessarily limit nutritious and more affordable vegetables that are easily accessible to school districts and popular with school-age children.

That is why I am leading a bipartisan effort to allow schools the flexibility to make reasonable and suitable choices among affordable and nutritious food options. It is a sensible way to keep costs at a reasonable level and ensure schools can provide well-balanced meals to our children.

Susan Collins, a native of Caribou, is Maine’s junior U.S. senator.

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