WASHINGTON — Often maligned, the potato is fighting back.
The spud has had a tough time lately. In the last year, it has been marginalized by new school lunch rules, demonized by a popular television program and blamed for the nation’s obesity epidemic. Health advocates and government officials have pushed to take them off lunch lines, where kids often reach for the crispy treats instead of greener vegetables.
Now some in Washington say they’re fed up with the war on fries. In a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack this month, 40 Republicans and Democrats in Congress questioned his department’s proposal to reduce the amount of potatoes and other starchy vegetables in school meals to about two servings a week, saying they can be a tasty, healthy way to provide potassium, fiber and other nutrients at a low cost.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Sen. Susan Collins (R., Maine), at a March Senate hearing on the USDA budget, hoisted a standard-fare brown-skinned spud in one hand and, in the other, a head of iceberg lettuce, which hasn’t come under explicit federal scrutiny. One medium white potato contains nearly twice the vitamin C “as this entire head,” she said, asking: “So my question, Mr. Secretary, is what does the department have against potatoes?”
It’s a refrain some in Congress are using more frequently to describe the Obama administration’s efforts to get kids to eat healthier foods — the government shouldn’t be telling kids what to eat. Should it be up to USDA to decide that potatoes can’t be eaten responsibly?
“I don’t think that’s what the federal government should be doing in general,” says Rep. Bill Owens, D-N.Y. He says he signed the letter after school lunchroom workers in his district came to him with concerns.
Since the guidelines apply to federally subsidized meals, schools are generally fine with broad federal guidelines on nutrition — how many servings a week children are allowed of grains or vegetables, for example. But many schools have balked at attempts to tell them exactly what foods they can’t serve.
“I feel that guidance is helpful, but that micromanagement is not,” says Doug Davis, food service director for Burlington, Vt., schools. “Having standards is important, but limiting foods by category is really challenging.”
Davis says he has worked hard over the past few years to source more foods locally and forgo processed foods. The potato grows well in his part of Vermont — so well that children in his school district are growing their own to eat off the lunch line. His lunchroom features all sorts of healthy potato dishes, including a bakedpotato bar.
“I don’t feel like potatoes or french fries are the enemy,” he said. “What we need to do is strike a balance in what our kids are eating.”
Health advocates say that is exactly why potatoes should be restricted. Because children eat so manypotatoes already, schools should focus on providing more variety.
“Kids are not eating enough vegetables and when they do eat vegetables they are eating potatoes way too often,” says Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest, which pushed for the standards. “Too much of anything, even a good food, isn’t healthy because people need to eat a variety of foods.”
Nutrition advocates like Wootan say the problem lies with the volume of fries prepared and consumed in schools every day. This was highlighted on the TV show “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution,” where the British chef descended on a West Virginia town and vowed to make school lunches healthier. Getting rid of french fries as vegetables was one of his top priorities.
Several members of Congress who signed the letter — along with potato growers, the frozen foods industry and others lobbying against the proposed rules — say the USDA proposal ignores that many schools that have long since taken the “fry” out of french fry. Though they may be fried as part of initial processing, schools are now preparing them with little grease and no crispiness, serving them to kids as a healthier option.
“They aren’t your daddy’s french fries,” says John Keeling of the National Potato Council. “It seems as if a lot of this is based on perception of the preparation of the product, not the nutritional value of the product.”
USDA says it is trying to strike a balance.
“The Institute of Medicine and other experts have advised the department that parents already do a great job of serving potatoes to their kids at home so they don’t need to eat as many potatoes at school,” USDAspokeswoman Courtney Rowe said in a statement. “The improved nutritional guidelines will add variety to the vegetables our kids currently eat, such as carrots, tomatoes and leafy greens.”
When the new rules were released in January, Vilsack said he understands the new standards may pose some challenges for school districts, but he believes they are necessary. He compared obesity and related diseases like diabetes to a truck barreling toward a child, and said the new guidelines are like a parent teaching that child to look both ways before he or she crosses the street.
Dr. Linda Van Horn, a professor of preventative medicine at Northwestern University who works with the American Heart Association, says two servings a week of potatoes are sufficient, and the stakes are high as childhood obesity worsens.
“The bottom line is that it’s not the vegetable that is the problem,” she says.