Earlier this year, as part of a push to make school meals healthier, the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed removing white potatoes from all federally subsidized school breakfasts and limiting them dramatically in lunches in favor of leafy greens and orange vegetables, such as sweet potatoes. The proposal, intended to reduce the amount of starchy vegetables that students eat was rebuffed this week by the Senate.
Following a bipartisan agreement on the issue, on October 17, the Senate accepted an amendment by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) that would block the USDA from imposing any limits on serving potatoes or other vegetables in school lunches. The way the amendment was constructed — blocking the USDA from limiting potatoes — would still give the department flexibility to regulate the preparation of the potatoes, espeically when it eventually issues the final version of the school lunch rule. The potato’s troubles began when it was lumped in with corn, lima beans and peas — starchy vegetables that the Institute of Medicine recommended in 2009 should be found less in healthful school meals. Taking this advice, the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) proposed to ban all such starchy vegetables from school breakfasts beginning in the 2012 school year and to cap lunch servings at one cup per week.
The proposed cap would have translated into around two servings of fries or typically one moderate-sized baked potato — at least a one-third cut from the amount typically consumed by students at schools. Among younger children, the USDA data suggested that many of the school lunch programs averaged less than one cup per week. However, the restrictions galvanized the potato lobby, which was still smarting over having been dropped from the food packages under the FNS Women, Infants and Children Program. The National Potato Council decried the proposal’s outdated focus, noting that the USDA recommendations were based on data of what was being consumed in school lunches in 2002. In that timeframe the NPC noted, schools undertook numerous measures to turn generally fried food items into baked items.
With obesity on the rise among children and adolescents, the USDA’s intent was let down by its execution. It is not the potato, itself, that has alarmed nutritionists and parents, but more the additives such as oil, butter, sour cream and gravy that may make the potato products fattening. Instead of addressing these matters, the USDA’s approach was to toss out the potato. We can bake potatoes instead of frying them or boil potatoes and serve with a lower calorie topping option for children. School meals have been moving towards the healthier side of the spectrum and it seems both the government and potato lobby agree upon that goal. They just disagree about the best way to make progress.