Education Funding

Senate Targets USDA Plan to Limit Potato Servings in School Lunches

By Nirvi Shah — October 25, 2011 4 min read
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Potatoes may remain plentiful on school lunch trays after all.

Although the U.S. Department of Agriculture has proposed limiting servings of spuds and other starchy vegetables in school breakfasts and lunches, a pair of potato-state senators succeeded in adding a rider Oct. 18 to the agency’s budget that would keep the USDA from spending money to enforce limits on any vegetable served at school.

The agriculture appropriations bill has to pass Congress before the amendment takes hold, but those promoting potatoes have already declared victory.“This means USDA 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,” said U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, who has boasted of her roots in the state’s potato-growing region and her first job, which was on a potato farm.

Sen. Collins and Democratic Sen. Mark Udall, of Colorado, another of the 36 potato-growing-states in the country, have led the effort to undo the proposed restrictions.

In January, the USDA called for limiting starchy vegetables to one cup per week at lunch and banning them from breakfast. Although boiled down to a debate about potatoes, the proposal contains many other changes to school meals, including increasing the amount of whole grains, fruit, and green and orange vegetables served, reducing the amount of sodium in meals, cutting fat from milk, and reducing calories.

The limits on corn, lima beans, peas, and potatoes have drawn the most controversy, however. Ms. Collins and Mr. Udall said the potato, low in calories and high in fiber and potassium, was being maligned by the federal government.

Fried vs. Baked

The recommendations were based on guidelines proposed by the Institute of Medicine, a nonprofit that advises the federal government on health matters. It suggested a reduction in servings of potatoes and other starches because 29 percent of the vegetables children eat are potatoes, mostly as fries or chips.

Peter McDaniel, of West Gardiner, enjoys some fries during lunch at Gardiner High School in Gardiner, Maine.

A USDA study from the 2004-05 school year showed that elementary schools already met the one-cup-or-less proposal. Middle schools were close, and high schools exceeded it, on average, by less than half a cup.

Mr. Udall suggested the USDA consider regulating how vegetables are prepared rather than which vegetables are served. While the potato industry pointed out that most school cafeterias don’t have fryers and that even fries and tater tots in school meals are baked, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based advocacy group, counters that many of those potatoes are fried, even if not at school.

“Though potatoes are a good source of fiber and potassium, the majority of potatoes served in schools are fried,” said Margo G. Wootan, the director of nutrition policy for the center. “And even ‘baked’ fries are usually fried in a factory before they get to school. ”

She accused Congress of bowing to industry interests instead of watching out for children.

“Some members of Congress showed that they are more interested in protecting business lobbyists than children’s health,” she said.

By advancing the amendment, the senators leapfrogged the traditional regulatory process. The USDA is still sifting through the 130,000 comments about its proposed meal rules. It’s possible the limits on potatoes will have been softened by the time the final rules are issued, likely later this year.

Because those rules haven’t been set, the USDA could comment little on the action in Congress. But the agency did defend its proposal.

“Our proposed rule will improve the health and nutrition of our children based on sound science recommended by the Institute of Medicine,” said Kevin Concannon, USDA’s undersecretary for food, nutrition, and consumer services, in a statement. “We will work with Congress to ensure that the intent of this rule is not undermined and that these historic improvements are allowed to move forward so that millions of kids across the nation will receive healthier meals.”

Opening the Door

But if the pro-potato set ultimately gets its way, the door could be opened for other interest groups to push their wishes on the proposed USDA rules. For a time during the ongoing debate in the Senate over the agriculture appropriations bill, for example, there was talk of offering an amendment requiring that small amounts of tomato paste be counted as a vegetable. That raised echoes of a controversial proposal during the Reagan administration to count ketchup as a vegetable.

While Ms. Wootan and others opposed the Senate amendment, they say it’s preferable to a House proposal that would require the USDA to start the meal-regulation process over entirely. The USDA offered its changes as directed by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which Sens. Collins and Udall voted for last December.

Potato advocates seized on the cost of implementing those changes—projected to be $6.8 billion over several years—as another reason to allow inexpensive spuds to appear in unlimited quantities in school meals.

But those costs would be more than covered by required increases in the price of lunch for students who pay full price, a bigger reimbursement from the federal government for all meals served that meet the new requirements, and pricing a la carte and vending-machine items at amounts that cover their costs rather than prices that reflect subsidizing from the federal school lunch and breakfast programs.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 26, 2011 edition of Education Week as Senate Targets USDA Plan to Limit Potato Servings in School Lunches

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