USDA Wants To Limit Potatoes In School Lunches

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The Agriculture Department plans to limit potato consumption among schoolchildren to two servings a week. But politicians and farmers in potato-growing states such as Maine say the spud is being unfairly targeted. As it turns out, schoolchildren have strong opinions about potatoes too.

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LYNN NEARY, HOST:

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is sending its own message to kids. It wants to limit the amount of potatoes in school lunches and mandate no more than two servings a week. That's about a cup. Not surprisingly, politicians in potato growing states, from Idaho to Maine, are fighting the plan. Josie Huang, of Maine Public Radio, talks with some of the most opinionated potato consumers she could find.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN CHATTERING)

JOSIE HUANG, BYLINE: I'm in the cafeteria of Falmouth Elementary School in Falmouth, Maine, and kindergartner Theo Kowalsky is happy to talk about how much he loves potatoes.

How do you like to eat them?

THEO KOWALSKY: By my hands.

HUANG: OK, that's the literal answer. It turns out that Theo likes potatoes when they're already called french fries.

KOWALSKY: People make them salty and I kind of like them when they make them salty, so...

HUANG: Fourth grader Hope Cody(ph), on the other hand, likes her white potatoes mashed.

HOPE CODY: What I like doing is, I like putting the steak in the mashed potatoes, because that's what my mom does a lot.

HUANG: Kids know how they like their potatoes. But no one seems to notice that their school has already cut their tater consumption to levels even lower than those proposed by the U.S.D.A. Kim Walker manages the cafeteria here.

KIM WALKER: We only have it on our menu, maybe two or three times a month.

HUANG: Walker ascribes to the U.S.D.A.'s assertion that there are healthier vegetables out there for kids to be eating. A Harvard study released last summer shows that potatoes, especially french fries and chips, top the list of foods that contribute to weight gain for Americans. Health advocates acknowledge that potatoes does offer potassium and fiber.

Margo Wootan, of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says the problem is they block out other foods.

MARGO WOOTAN: When kids are given the choice between fries and another vegetable, the kids usually choose fries. And so french fries crowd out other vegetables that kids need.

HUANG: Main is the nation's sixth largest potato producer. Senator Susan Collins says a legitimate concern about the over-consumption of french fries is leading people to vilify the simple potato and that will cost schools as they turn to pricier veggies.

SENATOR SUSAN COLLINS: The department itself estimates that this could add $6.8 billion to the cost of school lunches over the next five years.

HUANG: Collins, who says she used to pick potatoes as a girl, has joined with senators from other potato-growing states to try to defund the U.S.D.A. effort, which would also apply to other starchy vegetables like peas, corn, and lima beans. The House has already banned any funding from going forward to implement the U.S.D.A. proposal.

COLLINS: The Department of Agriculture would be sending a signal to all Americans, not just to children, that somehow potatoes are inherently unhealthy. That's just not true.

HUANG: Dr. Jonathan Shenkin is a pediatric dentist who's been championing the U.S.D.A. policy in Maine, which has New England's highest rate of overweight children.

DR. JONATHAN SHENKIN: We can provide kids with a model of future living and good behaviors at an early age and this may be the only opportunity they have.

HUANG: If there's one thing Shenkin and Collins can agree on, it's this. If you're going to serve potato, it's best baked, minus of course, the sour cream and cheese. Too bad fourth grader Gabi Esmond doesn't like baked potatoes.

GABI ESMOND: I think they're too hard.

HUANG: Collins says she and her potato allies in the Senate will try to insert language banning funding of the potato policy when the U.S.D.A.'s appropriation bill is voted on in the coming months.

For NPR News, I'm Josie Huang.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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