PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — After eating a potato-plentiful lunch that she deemed both “delicious and nutritious,” U.S. Sen. Susan Collins was honored Monday afternoon for her work in assuring that schools across the nation are free to serve potatoes to students.
During a luncheon at The Crow’s Nest restaurant that included both a baked potato bar and potato leek soup, Collins was honored by the Presque Isle-based Maine Potato Board and more than 30 potato growers, shippers and other industry officials. The board organized the luncheon after the Senate voted on Nov. 17 to approve a 2012 agriculture funding bill that included a bipartisan amendment, authored by Collins, that will protect the flexibility of schools to serve potatoes and other vegetables in the national school lunch and breakfast programs. It then was signed by President Barack Obama.
The luncheon also was attended by John Keeling, executive vice president and CEO of the National Potato Council, and state Department of Agriculture Commissioner Walt Whitcomb.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed new nutrition guidelines for the National School Lunch Program promoting more fruits, vegetables and whole grains while banning foods with trans fats and limiting starchy vegetables such as potatoes, green peas, lima beans and corn to a total of one cup per week. The proposed changes also sought to ban the starchy vegetables from the School Breakfast Program altogether.
Collins, U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and Democratic 2nd District U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud pushed back against the proposal and wrote letters to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsak decrying proposed rules that they felt were unfairly targeting the potato. Collins later co-authored an amendment with Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., that blocked the USDA from limiting potatoes and gave the USDA flexibility to regulate the preparation of potatoes when it issues the final version of its new school nutrition guidelines.
The USDA now “cannot proceed with a rule that would impose unnecessary and expensive new requirements affecting the servings of healthy vegetables, such as white potatoes, green peas, corn, and lima beans,” according to Collins.
During the event, Keeling said that Collins was tireless in her efforts to educate senators, leaders on Capitol Hill and the public in general about the health benefits of the potato. He lauded Collins for her commitment to the issue and her dedication to seeing it through.
“You’re commitment was just extraordinary,” he said.
Don Flannery, executive director of the Maine Potato Board, said during the session that when the USDA first proposed the new guidelines seeking to limit the potato, industry officials were pretty much told that the changes were going to be implemented. They praised Collins for her part in changing minds.
Collins acknowledged that the battle was “hard fought” and that she had to dispel a lot of myths about the white potato, which has just 110 calories and provides 620 milligrams of potassium if eaten with the skin, according to figures from the Maine Potato Board.
The senator said she “could not believe it” when she first heard of the USDA proposal
“Of all the issues the department could be working on, to target potatoes and try to get people to eat fewer potatoes just didn’t make sense,” she said.
Collins also noted that Doris Demers, nutrition program director for York and Kittery schools, really affected her when the two talked. Demers started a Farm To School program in the district and students would go to a local farm and pick corn to be served in the cafeteria. But if students had enjoyed a baked potato bar in the district one day, they could not have eaten a fresh ear of corn any time during the rest of the week. The proposal also would have meant that if the students had been served a cup of a potato one day, they could not have eaten shepherd’s pie, corn chowder or any other foods with starchy vegetables until the next week.
“This was so absurd,” said Collins, adding that it was “the worst example of government overreach, Washington knows best, and an elitist approach.”
The potato board’s Flannery said that industry leaders were especially concerned about the message the USDA was sending to students.
“It would have sent the message that all potatoes are bad,” he said. “They would have carried that message with them for the rest of their lives, which would have had a huge impact on our industry in terms of the number of people buying potatoes.”
Flannery said he doesn’t know why people continue to believe that potatoes are unhealthy but speculated that when they think of a potato they see french fries instead of a 50-pound bag of spuds on a shelf.
Tim Hobbs, director of development and grower relations for the Maine Potato Board, said the proposed regulations would have been another huge blow to the industry if they had been implemented. Growers already have seen losses in sales because of the low-carb craze that gripped the nation several years ago.
“I think we are still feeling the ramifications of that and likely will for another generation or so,” he said Monday.