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Loaded Issue: Senators Skin Spud Sanction

By guest blogger Nirvi Shah

After all the mud-slinging about spuds over the course of the year, the pro-potato set has been able to hash out a way to undo limits on serving potatoes in schools.

As promised, Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Democratic Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado worked a clause into the federal agriculture spending bill that would keep the U.S. Department of Agriculture from limiting any vegetable from being served in school meals.

Earlier this year, the USDA proposed rules about school meals that would have limited starchy vegetables—white potatoes, peas, corn, and lima beans, in particular—to a one-cup serving once a week at lunch. They were cut out of breakfast all together. The reasoning: Nearly a third of the vegetables children consume are potatoes, and mostly as chips or fries.

Groups including the National Potato Council defended potatoes as smart sources of fiber and potassium, and perfectly healthy when not fried. Most of the fries served in school are, in fact, baked. They also reasoned that potatoes, grown in 32 states, are cheap, and that white potatoes work as a gateway vegetable, coaxing students to eat other veggies if white potatoes are mixed in.

The price of potatoes has been a cornerstone of the tuber touters because other portions of the bipartisan Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act will be expensive to put into place. But those who agree with the limits say the costs are more than offset.

"Our bipartisan amendment would prevent the Department of Agriculture from moving forward with this arbitrary limitation," Collins said Monday.

The USDA, weighing some 130,000 comments about the proposal, which also requires more green and orange vegetables, more fruit, more whole grains, less sodium, and less fat in milk, is expected to finalize rules about school meals later this year.

If the agriculture spending bill passes with the amendment, however, the USDA won't be allowed to use any money to set rules that limit the servings of any vegetable in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs. It's not clear whether the USDA would have to issue an entirely new proposal on school meals.

Collins and Udall got support from a group of senators this week, who wrote to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack echoing concerns about limiting vegetables kids do like to eat.

They didn't explicitly endorse potatoes, but they did say that the USDA should consider whether children will end up throwing away a lot of the new veggies they encounter and that perhaps regulations regarding how vegetables are prepared might address the agency's concerns about what schoolchildren eat.

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