May 18, 2011 -- As part of a push to make school meals healthier, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has proposed removing white potatoes from all federally subsidized school breakfasts and limiting them dramatically in lunches.
The proposal is intended to reduce the amount of starchy vegetables, such as French fries and Tater Tots, students eat. Starch-heavy corn and peas are also being cut in favor of leafy greens and orange vegetables, such as sweet potatoes. Yes, not all potatoes are created nutritionally equal.
But the potato is not going down without a fight. The National Potato Council is, naturally, an outspoken critic of the plan.
"There may be preparations that are better than others, but there are no bad fruits or vegetables," said John Keeling, the council's CEO. "When you force a limit on potatoes and you force other things in there you drive the cost up, you reduce the flexibility of the schools, you take away a vegetable that kids like and you run the risk of ... delivering less nutrition."
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, also stood up for the spud during a USDA budget hearing in March. In 2010, Maine produced more than 6 percent of America's potatoes, according to the Maine Potato Board.
"One medium white potato has nearly twice as much vitamin C as an entire head of iceberg lettuce," said Collins. "My question, Mr. Secretary, is what does the department have against potatoes?"
The USDA says it's trying to expose children to an array of healthy foods, and while there is nothing wrong with potatoes, children already consume enough of them.
"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," said USDA spokeswoman Jean Daniel in a statement. "The improved nutritional guidelines will add variety to the vegetables our kids currently eat such as carrots, tomatoes and leafy greens ... reducing sodium and increasing whole grains."
The National Potato Council believes the proposal, which could go into effect as early as the 2012-2013 school year, will not increase the amount of vegetables kids eat. The council says, citing its survey of food service professionals, that potatoes are a gateway to other vegetables, and that kids eat more of the other types of vegetables when potatoes are on their plate.
"[They] felt if they reduced the amount of potatoes they offered in meals, and if they substituted other vegetables that kids were less familiar with ... they were going to get significant changes in plate waste," said Keeling.
Keeling also criticized the data used by the USDA to formulate the new guidelines.
"When you look back at the ... USDA recommendations, they are based on what was being consumed in schools in 2002. And since 2002, the potato products that you and I would describe as French fries or other products ... being served in schools have changed dramatically," said Keeling, explaining that most of the items that were once fried are now baked.
"There are very few schools that have fryers even left," he said. "What's happened over that 10-year period is potato processors working with school districts have reformulated the potatoes that are in schools."
Both the National Potato Council and the USDA agree that the number of fryers in schools has decreased substantially and that school meals have become healthier. They just disagree about the best way to make even more progress.