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Proposed Rules About School Meals Remain a Hot Potato

From guest blogger Nirvi Shah:

If some folks had their way, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's proposed rules about school meals might be better off without the part that limits the amount of potatoes school children can be served

On Wednesday, the National Potato Council hosted a press briefing (complete with a hot potato bar brought in by the Alexandria, Va., school district) to make its case for why potatoes should have more of a showing on school lunch trays than the USDA is proposing. The agency's proposal would limit potatoes (and fellow starchy vegetables corn, green peas, and lima beans) to one cup a week.

The reduction in servings of starchy vegetables is one of many changes to school meals proposed by the USDA to reflect recommendations from the Institutes of Medicine. The changes, which generated more than 130,000 comments, also require more green and orange vegetables, less fat in milk, more whole grains, and less sodium. The USDA is expected to finalize the rules about school meals later this year or early next, and school cafeterias would have to put them into practice during the 2012-13 school year.

As U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, noted, that means if baked potatoes were served on Monday, corn on the cob couldn't be served Thursday. Fish chowder or beef stew made with potatoes would be out, too.

Collins, who grew up in a region of Maine where potato farms are plentiful and whose first job was picking potatoes, also said that she and her siblings ate potatoes every day, but neither she nor her five brothers and sisters are overweight.

She sponsored the discussion, entitled USDA's School Meals Make No $ense, with other lawmakers from potato-growing states, including Sen. Olympia Snowe, R, Maine, Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., and Rep. Jean Schmidt, R-Ohio. (Not all lawmakers from the country's many potato-growing states are united on this issue.U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., has asked people to thank Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack for the proposed nutrition standards, in particular the limits on potatoes.)

Collins noted, as has the National Potato Council, that potatoes have more potassium than bananas and are a good source of fiber.

She pledged to try to force the USDA's hand when the agriculture spending bill comes up for discussion on the Senate floor, something she had suggested she would do in the past.

"The bottom line is the department's rule simply goes too far," Collins said Wednesday. "It would unfairly hurt a vegetable that is easily accessible and popular."

And cheap. Food service directors at the meeting, from Virginia, Colorado, Maine, Pennsylvania, and California predicted dire scenarios if the meal rules take effect unchanged. For one thing, they say, their costs are expected to go up significantly, in part because they will be buying more fruits and vegetables, including many that cost more than potatoes. (The USDA will pay districts a little more per meal, and schools must charge students who pay full price for meals more to make up for some of the new costs.)

Between the changes about what vegetables to serve and others that carry a price tag and are required by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (which passed in Congress last year with bipartisan support), some cafeteria managers worry they will have to make some major changes to their meal programs to cut costs. Some districts won't be able to serve breakfast, the food service officials warned. At schools where an overwhelming majority of students are poor, universal free breakfast or lunch programs could disappear. Perhaps students will be served cold meals or have no options from which to choose how to load their trays. Students will end up throwing away a lot of food because the proposed rules require larger servings of fruits and vegetables, they warned.

But after the meeting, Jeffrey Mills, who runs the District of Columbia's school meal program, was quick to point out that his district put into effect the meal recommendations and has cut costs and increased the number of meals it is are serving. And a Maine cafeteria manager endorses the USDA's limits on spuds.

The USDA has reasoned that it wants to limit the amount of potatoes served at school because American children eat plenty of them in and outside of school. The Institutes of Medicine, which created guidance about meals that the USDA drew from to create its school meal rules, says 29 percent of the vegetables kids eat, nearly a third, are some form of potatoes. Most are in the form of chips or fried fries—rather than the baked fries most school cafeterias now serve.

But Leo Lesh, the just-retired director of Denver's school food service program, said that isn't the school cafeteria's responsibility,especially when students are in school for only part of the day for typically 180 days a year.

"School lunches don't cause obesity," he said. "I can't account for the other 186 days [of the year] or whatever it is."

The panel at Wednesday's tuber talk also invoked the federal government's push to increase the amount of vegetables all Americans should eat. They noted First Lady Michelle Obama's work on school nutrition. (The First Lady was hosting students from two District of Columbia elementary schools at the same time as the tuber talk. They were helping her harvest the White House garden, which I believe does not include potatoes.)

The food service directors also said potatoes often serve as the catalyst for getting students to eat other vegetables. The potato bar offered diced carrots, diced tomatoes, spinach, and steamed broccoli as toppings (along with reduced-fat cheddar, low fat sour cream, turkey chili, and butter). Mark Szymanski, spokesman for the National Potato Council, told me some schools mix sweet potato fries in with white potato fries so students will eat the sweet potatoes.

The potato industry already is on the defensive because the WIC, or Women, Infants, and Children, program, no longer allows its vouchers to be spent on white potatoes. The program provides money for some low-income pregnant women or mothers to buy food. Schools buying fewer potatoes could be a huge blow to the $3.2 billion industry.

"That's a slippery slope to saying potatoes are not vegetables anymore, that potatoes are not nutritious, and they don't have any value," Syzmanski said.

Although a reporter pointed out that the meal rules aren't final, it sounded like the panelists were sure that the USDA won't adjust its proposal on potatoes at all, despite the thousands of comments it received.

Dayle Hayes, a dietician and author of the School Meals That Rock page on Facebook, conceded that point.

"We don't know what exactly is being considered for the final rule," she said.

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