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Don't Trash Talk the Tubers (or Corn, Peas, or Lima Beans)

From guest blogger Nirvi Shah:

As the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee gets together this afternoon to talk about the
2012 agriculture budget, I wonder whether the U.S. Department of Agriculture will get dinged because of the rules it has proposed for school breakfasts and lunches.

In July, I just learned, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., wrote a letter inviting their colleagues to support legislation that would prohibit funding that would allow the new nutritional standards from taking effect. (Sen. Collins is on the appropriations committee.) Among other changes, the proposed rules require schools to serve more whole grains, flavored milk with less fat, and more fruit and vegetables. They also call for limiting starchy veggies, including potatoes, corn, peas, and lima beans, to a one-cup serving just once a week. Sweet potatoes aren't on the starchy vegetable hit list.

While many people think of Idaho as the potato-producing state, potatoes are grown across the country, including Maine and Colorado.

In Sen. Collins and Sen. Udall's eyes, the nutritional standards in the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs would "unnecessarily discriminate against white potatoes, corn, lima beans, and green peas."

The potato industry, as I've written before, has launched its own campaign to change the proposed standards, which won't be final for a while. The USDA is wading through about 130,000 comments it received after the standards were unveiled in January.

The senators believe that the proposed rule could "seriously and needlessly injure potato, corn, lima bean, and pea growers around the country. Not only could they suffer an immediate loss in sales, but also the department's designation has the potential to unfairly stigmatize these vegetables as 'unhealthy' in the eyes of many, which, in turn, could depress consumer demand and lead to financial losses for producers in many rural communities."

They go on to say that the vegetables limited by the standards contain fiber, vitamins C and A, iron and other nutrients school-age children need. Allowing these veggies to be served more frequently than the proposed rules allow would keep costs reasonable for school cafeterias, they point out.

But limiting potatoes in school is unlikely to keep kids from getting their fair share of spuds. The USDA's proposed standards were based on recommendations from the Institutes of Medicine, which says 29 percent of the vegetables kids eat—or nearly a third—are some form of potatoes. Most of those, you may have guessed, are consumed as fries or chips.

One reporter listening to the committee this afternoon reports that Sen. Collins said "I don't know what it is that [Agriculture] Secretary [Tom] Vilsack has against potatoes, but I'm going to invite him to have some Maine potatoes."

Meanwhile, Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., is taking a different position on potatoes. Through his "Fearless Campaign" he's asking for folks to send their thanks to Mr. Vilsack for the proposed nutrition standards, in particular the limits on potatoes.

In an email about the campaign, Rep. Polis writes "Let Secretary Vilsack know that you support his new regulations so he doesn't give in to the farm lobby's absurd demands. Our government spends $12 billion every year on school meals. That's your money and it should be spent wisely."

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