Potato lunch battle erupts in Congress
Maine senator takes stand against limits on spuds in schools
By JERRY HAGSTROM
For the Capital Press
WASHINGTON -- A longstanding, behind-the-scenes battle over the Obama administration's writing of the rule governing food served in school lunch and breakfast programs broke into the open Oct. 5 when Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, urged the Agriculture Department to rewrite the proposed rule to make it easier to serve white potatoes and other starchy vegetables or face legislative restrictions.
Using authority under the new Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, the USDA has issued a proposed rule it says would bring school meals into conformity with recommendations from the Institutes of Medicine, which says children should have more leafy green vegetables and fruit, low-fat dairy and meat products and fewer starchy vegetables and less sodium and fat.
The proposed rule is so restrictive, Collins said at a news conference with the National Potato Council, that if a school were to serve corn on the cob on a Monday it could not serve a medium-size baked potato later in the week, or any chowder or stew that contains any potatoes or corn.
"The department's rule simply goes too far," said Collins, who represents one of the country's most important potato-growing states. "The white potato is not getting the credit it deserves."
Some school meal administrators have said they are concerned the restriction on potatoes and other changes would increase costs in the midst of the recession, while others back the rule. Some companies that provide processed foods to the schools have said USDA is trying to remove sodium from meals too quickly.
"We believe our proposed standards are paid for, better for kids, and many schools are already there," Kevin Concannon, USDA undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, said in an e-mail.
Concannon has said previously that he is reviewing all the comments and that the rule will be fair to both nutrition interests and industry.
Collins said she has appealed to Concannon, a Maine native, to reconsider the rule, but that she has not received enough reassurances.
The House-passed agriculture appropriations bill contains report language urging USDA to rewrite the rule. Collins said she expects the issue to come up on the Senate floor later this month, when the fiscal 2012 Agriculture appropriations bill comes up for consideration.
At a Senate Agriculture Appropriations Committee meeting last month, Collins said she had written an amendment that would force the agency to rewrite the rule.
"I don't like taking the legislative route," she told Capital Press. "There are some parts of the overall rule that are good," including the goal of children eating of more vegetables and whole grains.
"It would be great if they (rewrote the rule) before the Agriculture appropriations bill comes up on the Senate floor," Collins said, but added that she is worried if she does not act when the appropriations bill comes up she will not have another chance.
The issue has caused conflict within United Fresh, the national lobby that represents fruit and vegetable growers, including potato growers. United Fresh has taken the position that the writing of the rule should be left up to USDA, which it trusts to come up with a fair rule. The National Potato Council has encouraged congressional intervention. United Fresh is meeting in Washington this week, which is also National School Lunch Week.
The National Alliance for Nutrition and Activity has urged USDA to follow the Institutes of Medicine recommendations and to make the rules for school meals in line with the nation's dietary guidelines. Its member include the American Cancer Society, the American Diabetes Association, the American Dietetic Association, the American Heart Association, the Center for Science in the Public Interest and United Fresh.
A USDA background paper says that an estimate that the changes could cost roughly $6.8 billion over the next five years "is a high-end estimate" based on the assumption that children will take everything that is offered to them in the lunch line.
The USDA paper also says that " the child nutrition bill already provides more than enough money for schools to meet the new standards.