WASHINGTON — While pleased that new guidelines issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for school meals do not restrict servings of potatoes, members of the potato industry and some members of the state’s congressional delegation expressed concern Thursday that the spud is taking a back seat to other vegetables.
The final round of rules for government-subsidized school meals issued on Wednesday adds more fruits and green vegetables to meals while reducing salt and fat. About 32 million children participate in school meal programs each day. The rules are the first changes in 15 years to the $11 billion school lunch program.
When the USDA first proposed the new nutrition guidelines last year, it sought to limit servings of starchy vegetables in the National School Lunch Program. It also sought to ban them from the School Breakfast Program altogether.
Starchy vegetables include potatoes, green peas, lima beans and corn.
Saying that the USDA was unfairly targeting the potato, U.S. Sen Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Democratic 2nd District U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud wrote letters to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to address the issue.
In November 2011, the Senate approved a 2012 agriculture funding bill that included a bipartisan amendment written by Collins. The wording of the amendment blocked the USDA from limiting potatoes and gave the USDA flexibility to regulate the preparation of potatoes when it issued the final version of its new school nutrition guidelines.
But Snowe said in a statement late Wednesday evening that the USDA chose a “backdoor approach” with the new rules that requires schools to meet all other fruit and vegetable requirements before serving more than one cup of starchy vegetables each week in order to be eligible for reimbursement by the federal government.
Snowe called the move “disappointing after Congress made it clear in November that limitations on potato consumption should be removed when they are served in a healthy manner.”
“The USDA chose a backdoor approach that reduces the flexibility in providing affordable and nutritional meals when our public schools already face constrained budgets,” she continued.
Rep. Michaud said he was relieved that the new standards did not remove potatoes from school lunches, but he remained skeptical about the cost of implementing the new changes in an era of extreme belt tightening in schools. He said he would urge the USDA to re-evaluate the new rule if concerns arose from potato producers or school lunch administrators.
Collins said she was “generally pleased” with the new standards, but was concerned that the rule for the School Breakfast Program “does not fully reflect the intent of our amendment.”
“While USDA would no longer ban certain vegetables, such as potatoes, from the breakfast program, as it originally proposed to do, the overly prescriptive nature of the rule may continue to limit the flexibility of local schools and increase costs,” said Collins.
The USDA estimates that the cost of preparing each school lunch will rise by 11 cents under the new rules because schools will be preparing more fresh food and labor will rise. The cost of each breakfast will go up 28 cents. The federal government will chip in 6 cents per lunch to help schools meet the standards.
The National Potato Council also was appreciative of the new rules but still somewhat displeased.
Spokesman Mark Szymanski said that the group feels that the potato “is being downplayed in favor of other vegetables in the new guidelines.”
“It seems the department still considers the potato a second-class vegetable,” he continued.
Tim Hobbs, director of development and grower relations for the Maine Potato Board, said Thursday that the new rule was issued to get around the amendment made by Collins.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “The potato is just as healthy as other vegetables.”
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 and has 15 percent of the daily recommended intake of dietary fiber.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.