The USDA is considering new guidelines for school lunches that would limit servings of potatoes. Photo courtesy Scott Bauer/USDA
Children line up for fruit and veggie cups during the summer meals program in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. Photo by Jessica Robinson
COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho - There's a showdown brewing in the lunch room. New federal nutrition guidelines for school meals are running up against a surprisingly vocal force: potato advocates. Politicians, farmers and industry groups from potato-producing states decry the USDA's recommendation to limit servings of spuds.
When you talk to certain people about what's been happening with the potato lately, you get the feeling the potato is being seriously dissed.
"I don't know if the potato's just not sexy enough for people..."
"I have been mortified at the negativity..."
"... to literally discriminate against one of our vegetables ..."
That was, in order, potato promoter Chris Voigt, nutritionist Samantha Ramsay and Senator Mike Crapo. Idaho is a state so serious about its potatoes it has a trademark on them.
Not surprisingly, Crapo isn't too pleased with the USDA's proposed guideline that schools should serve a child just one cup of starchy vegetables a week.
"It would drastically limit a cost-effective nutrient-dense vegetable, the potato, from school meal menus, which is inconsistent to promote better nutrition for our children," Crapo says.
Crapo wants to pass a bill that would send the USDA back to the drawing board.
The agriculture agency for its part says it's not out to get the potato.
"The recommendations are not to say that any one vegetable doesn't contribute positively to diet," says Jean Daniel, a spokeswoman for the USDA's nutrition program.
"It's looking at the entire diet and how to teach children to eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, including potatoes."
Still, the bill to block the proposed guidelines has already passed in the House. And Crapo's office expects bipartisan support when it comes up in the Senate. Why? Because there are potato farms in every state. It's the country's leading vegetable crop in terms of sales.
Chris Voigt of the Potato Commission in Washington thinks that's beside the point though.
"I don't think any of us are really thinking about lost sales," Voigt says. "This is really about drawing a line in the sand and saying okay 'enough is enough.'"
To potato promoters like Voigt, this is the worst batch of bad news since the Atkins diet. Last year, the USDA banned participants in the Women, Infants and Children program from using federal assistance checks to buy potatoes.
And most recently, a study out of Harvard University named potatoes the leading contributor to long-term weigh gain.
Voigt thinks the potato is being punished for what people do to it.
"You know, it's a whole different conversation if they say okay no deep-fat fryers in the school, or no french fries or no potato chips," he says. "They just went out and banned essentially all potatoes or restricted their consumption. It's very confusing."
Voigt, by the way, once went 60 days on an all-potato diet to prove spuds are healthful. He lost weight.
So is this what the argument is really about – the preparation? Maybe the USDA's guidelines should be about deep fryers, not potatoes...
Well, according to the Harvard study, even boiled potatoes are problematic. The lead researcher says the way the body processes the carbohydrates in potatoes appears to be more conducive to weight gain than the calorie count alone would suggest.
Also, most schools these days bake their tater tots and French fries. Which brings us back to the inherent nutritional value. Here, I turn to Samantha Ramsay.
She's is in an interesting place in this fight.
"I'm an assistant professor at the University of Idaho, and I'm also the director of the Coordinated Program in Dietetics," Ramsay says.
Ramsay has a lot of good things to say about the potato — also her home state's biggest crop. She was the one who was mortified by the bad press it's been getting.
"It's a nutrient dense food," Ramsay exclaims. "And it's like, Why do you have to be so harsh on potatoes? They're a good food!"
I say to her, "I have to ask you. Do you have to say that because you work at the University of Idaho?"
"No," she says. "And I will be point blank: No I'm not just saying that."
But Ramsay also supports the USDA's proposed guidelines. And here's why. When the federal government asked the National Academy of Sciences how to improve school lunches, its experts looked at the foods children are already getting at home.
Turns out, kids eat lots of starchy foods, like potatoes. In fact, the potato is THE most popular vegetable in America.
"So, I think it's just an emphasis on offering a variety of foods," Ramsay says, "And what I believe in is making sure we are supporting the health and well being of young children. That's it right there. And if we're not doing that, then we need to change things."
Far from the fiery potato debate... the ultimate verdict will be handed down in school cafeterias. Mary Ortiz is a kitchen manager – aka, the lunch lady in a Coeur d'Alene school.
On this day, hot dogs, corn chips, fresh fruit and veggie cups are on the menu.
"It's a guideline maybe to show them how they should be eating in the future," Ortiz says.
"Maybe they'll take it on with them when they grow up. I think it's just kind of like a classroom."
But there are no potatoes on the menu today. This school district may be in Idaho but it only serves potatoes a couple of times a week.
That's about what the new USDA guidelines recommend.
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