USDA school proposal gets under potato growers' skins

McClatchy NewspapersJune 8, 2011 

WASHINGTON — The new American symbol for a healthy diet is laden with vegetables, and it includes plenty of room on the plate for Idaho potatoes.

The dinner plate-based guide from the U.S. Department of Agriculture released last week, which replaces the food pyramid that's been in place for two decades, is divided into four parts. Fruits and vegetables take up half the space; grains and proteins make up the other half.

"The overall message is very simple, and I applaud the effort to make people understand that fruits and vegetables should be half your meal," said Frank Muir, the president and chief executive of the Idaho Potato Commission. "I'd also encourage people to make sure they're using the right-sized plate."

But he's less thrilled with a new USDA school nutrition proposal, which calls for fewer potatoes to be served with school breakfasts and lunches. Its aim is to cut down on how many french fries kids eat — and to replace them with green vegetables.

Members of Congress have taken up the food fight, too. Last month, 40 Republicans and Democrats in Congress questioned the USDA's proposal to cut back on potatoes and other starchy vegetables in school meals.

In a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, they objected to guidelines that limit potatoes in school meals to about two servings a week. The Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the independent, nonprofit National Academy of Sciences, drew up those guidelines for the USDA.

The guidelines in particular call for increases in the amounts of green and orange vegetables and legumes that kids eat at school. But many lawmakers, particularly Republicans, have raised concerns that the guidelines will raise the prices of school lunches.

They also question whether simply cutting out potatoes will prod kids into eating more orange and green vegetables.

"I think the natural reaction from most people is to look at this new policy and shake their head and say, 'What are you doing here?' " said Rep. Jean Schmidt, R-Ohio, who heads the Nutrition and Horticulture Subcommittee of the House Agriculture Committee, and who authored the letter.

Potatoes can be a delicious way to provide potassium, fiber and other key nutrients in the school nutrition standards, the lawmakers argued in their letter to Vilsack.

The letter has the support of agriculture state lawmakers of both parties, including Rep. Joe Baca of California, the top Democrat on Schmidt's subcommittee. Signers include Reps. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif., Jim Costa, D-Calif., Renee Ellmers, R-N.C., Wally Herger, R-Calif., Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., Tom McClintock, R-Calif., Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., and Devin Nunes, R-Calif.

But the reaction is also part of a backlash on the right over first lady Michelle Obama's campaign against childhood obesity.

Obama attended the debut last week of the USDA's plate-based diet guidelines. She called it a simple tool for parents and an important part of her "Let's Move" campaign to end childhood obesity.

"As long as they're eating proper portions, as long as half of their meal is fruits and vegetables alongside their lean proteins, whole grains and low-fat dairy, then we're good," she said. "It's as simple as that. That's how easy this can be for parents."

Education is important in preventing obesity, Schmidt said, but she said she drew a line at being told what she could and couldn't feed her grandchildren. Schmidt, who's run 89 marathons, said more needed to be done to get children outside.

"The government has no right to get into my kids' lunch box," she said. "They have no right to get into my kitchen. That's my job as a parent, to decide what my child will eat. That's not the government's job. Educate me, but don't dictate to me."

Idaho's congressional delegation has unsuccessfully fought a USDA rule that prohibits poor women from buying potatoes with the money they get each month to buy nutritious food.

Potatoes are the only vegetable banned in the USDA's Women, Infants and Children feeding program, which gives poor women extra money, typically about $40 each month, to buy nutritious food while they're pregnant, nursing or tending to infants.

The USDA decided not to include potatoes because a study found that many poor people already base their diet on them.

The study, also by the Institute of Medicine, looked at what kinds of foods WIC participants were eating already and what sorts of nutrients they were lacking.

Growers think it's confusing for potatoes to be welcome on the new plate but unwelcome in schools and in programs such as WIC.

"It's on the one hand saying, 'Yeah, potatoes are good for you,' and on the other excluding them from school meals and WIC," said Muir of the Idaho Potato Commission. "Please, please, one side of USDA talk to the other side."

Muir said industry studies had found that only about 15 percent of the potatoes served in schools were fried. The commission is trying to encourage schools to serve potatoes on salad bars, where they're "a perfect canvas for other vegetables," he said.

For advocates of eating more vegetables, potatoes are fine, as long as they're not fried.

"That's really a nutrition education issue," said Kathryn Strong, a nutritionist with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a pro-vegan, anti-animal testing group that would like to see healthier school meals.

The committee would like to see diets that cut back on high-fat meat, cheese, sweetened beverages and sodium rather than starchy vegetables.

"A potato is very healthy. There's nothing wrong with it," Strong said, adding that the committee's main concern also is the french fry. "When you chop up and deep-fry anything, it's not going to be good for you."

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