Nutrition

Potatoes: The bedrock of the school lunch program?

Posted Sept. 22, 2011, at 1:53 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 23, 2011, at 5:15 p.m.
Associated Press photo

To hear the french fry and potato industry tell it, the success of the school lunch program depends on the humble potato. And so, apparently, does the health of our children.

They argue that potatoes are loaded with nutrients, are low in cost and are one of the only vegetables kids will eat. To keep french fries, tater tots and the like on the daily school lunch menu, they are aggressively lobbying Congress to kill a sensible proposal by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, or USDA, to limit french fries and other starchy vegetables to two servings a week with school lunches. Right now, fries are allowed every day.

As the National Potato Council claims, potatoes are a good source of fiber and potassium. The council argues that “at a time when all Americans, especially kids, are not eating enough vegetables, we should be encouraging more choices, not less.”

But it fails to point out that when kids eat vegetables with school lunch, 75 percent of the time it is french fries or another starchy vegetable. When parents tell their kids to eat their vegetables, they usually have something other than french fries in mind.

Baking fries in school is better, but even “baked” fries are usually fried in a factory before they get to school. Frying adds extra calories many kids can’t afford.

Eating a wide variety of vegetables can help reduce calorie intake and address obesity. A recent Harvard study found a link between eating potatoes and obesity, not just fries and chips, but even boiled, baked or mashed potatoes are linked to weight gain. In another study, elementary students in schools where french fries were offered more often were more likely to be obese.

Not surprisingly, when given the choice between fries or another vegetable, kids usually choose fries. USDA’s national School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Study showed other vegetables can’t compete with fries. The proposed school lunch guidelines would help get kids to try — and eat — other vegetables.

Different vegetables provide different nutrients. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that kids eat a wider variety of vegetables to get all the nutrients they need for growth and good health.

The potato industry’s shenanigans are not only bad for kids’ vegetable intake, but jeopardize the many other important improvements USDA is planning to help schools make, including doubling the overall amount of fruits and vegetables (good for farmers and kids), increasing whole grains and low-fat dairy, and reducing sodium, unhealthy trans and saturated fats and calories.

The USDA proposal has garnered more than 130,000 comments from the public, the overwhelming majority of which fully support the proposed school meal standards. Parents want healthier school meals. A recent poll by the Pew Charitable Trusts and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that two-thirds of voters believe that schools should be required to meet higher nutrition standards for school meals.

Potatoes are cheap, but there are other inexpensive vegetable choices. According to USDA buying recommendations for school lunch, a serving, or half a cup, of sweet potatoes, frozen carrots or green beans costs about the same as an equal amount of potato wedges.

Some members of Congress have expressed concerns about the overall costs of the school meal improvements. However, the costs of the proposed school lunch guidelines are fully covered by several provisions of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which Congress passed and President Obama signed last year.

Usually, Congress leaves the details of school meal standards to the nutrition experts at USDA. It should maintain that tradition, and side with our nation’s children, not the french fry and potato industries.

The regulatory process already under way at USDA is the right way to move forward to support parents, children’s health and all vegetable farmers — not just the ones with the most influential lobbyists.

Margo Wootan, a native of Ellsworth, is director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit advocacy organization that specializes in food and nutrition. CSPI led the national coalition that helped passed last year’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which required USDA to update the nutrition guidelines for all school foods.

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