Rule would have cost schools billions to implement, group says
By JOHN O'CONNELL
Potato advocates are hailing legislation that prevents the USDA to limit potatoes and other starchy foods in school meals.
President Barack Obama signed into law legislation Nov. 18 that included an amendment to block funds to implement the planned USDA guidelines, which sought to bar schools from serving more than one cup per week of starchy vegetables including potatoes, corn, peas and lima beans.
The amendment, which will remain in effect indefinitely, was added to the spending bill Congress approved the previous day to fund the federal government through Dec. 16.
Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, both R-Idaho, were original cosponsors of the amendment, introduced by Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Mark Udall, D-Colo.
"This was a proposal that shouldn't have been advanced in the first place," said Lindsay Nothern, a spokesman for Crapo. "It's the kind of top-down agency-driven directive that wasn't properly vetted in the Congress."
Under the Healthy Hunger-free Kids Act of 2010, USDA is required to revise nutrition standards based on the latest recommendations of the Institute of Medicine. USDA officials stress potatoes represent 29 percent of children's total vegetable intake, and they eat far too little dark green and orange vegetables and legumes.
"We've heard from both potato growers and school districts that this would have been a mistake and that potatoes remain one of the most wholesome, nutritious and affordable items that we can have on school lunch menus," Nothern said in response, arguing nutritional concerns should instead be directed at preparation.
The National Potato Council estimates the rule would have cost U.S. schools $6.8 billion over the next five years because other vegetables would be costlier to meet nutritional requirements.
NPC spokesman Mark Szymanski said his organization conducted a national survey of food service directors and found that only 11 percent of U.S. schools still have deep fryers. Mississippi is banning fryers, he added.
"I think the other thing lost in this debate was what's actually going on in schools," Szymanski said. "Per week, USDA data shows schools are only offering two servings of potatoes to students in grades 9-12."
The NPC set up a website, potatoesinschools.com, with facts on the issue and legislative contacts, urging the public to weigh in. Szymanski said 800 people used the forum to submit comments.
Southeast Idaho school districts also came out against the changes. Officials with Pocatello-Chubbuck School District 25 sent USDA a letter characterizing the rule as overly restrictive.
"They're trying to make the potato out to be the overall enemy," said the district's food service coordinator, Tom Wilson, who develops menus with a registered dietitian. "If they look at the nutritional value of the potato, they're missing the point."
Tami Robinson, child nutrition supervisor with Blackfoot School District 55, added, "We're trying to incorporate more fresh fruit and vegetables, but unfortunately fresh is expensive. I feel potatoes have a vital place on our menus. They're inexpensive for the most part, and kids eat them."