A Momentous Step

Published in the December 2011 Issue Published online: Dec 08, 2011 John Keeling
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On October 18, Congress took a momentous step toward reversing years of prejudicial federal public policy against the potato.

The pivotal event? After less than two minutes of floor debate, the U.S. Senate approved a one-sentence bipartisan amendment that prohibits the use of USDA funds to implement rules that would set maximum serving limits on vegetables-including potatoes-in school meal programs.

While one vote on one amendment might not seem like an earth-shattering event to outsiders, we in the U.S. potato industry know that wins for the potato have recently been few and far between.

Take consumer demand: In 2007, Americans ate 20 percent fewer potatoes due, in no small part, to the anti-carb Atkins and South Beach diets, which banned potatoes from dieters' plates and created public confusion as to the nutritional benefits of the potato.

The government then piled on our humble tuber. In 2006, USDA began a comment period that ultimately barred participants of the Women, Infants and Children program, known as WIC, from buying potatoes with federal dollars. This meant that 9.3 million children and pregnant and breast-feeding women considered at risk for malnutrition were no longer allowed to use federal aid to purchase nutrient-rich fresh white potatoes-the only vegetable prohibited under the program.

And most recently, in January 2011, USDA issued proposed federal regulations that would limit total servings of certain vegetables-potatoes, corn, green peas and lima beans-in the National School Lunch Program to one-half cup, up to two times per week. The rules would also prohibit school districts from serving these vegetables altogether in the School Breakfast Program.

But after hearing from concerned potato growers, school districts and parents alike, Senators Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Mark Udall (D-Colorado) decided that government-sponsored potato bashing needed to stop.

Collins and Udall brought together a broad bipartisan group of Senators to sponsor and pass an amendment that requires USDA to revisit its proposal and remove vegetable serving limits from its school meal programs. In doing so, the Senators used actual facts to rebuff the unsubstantiated claims propagated by anti-potato advocates about the nutritional value of potatoes and the serving frequency and preparation methods of potatoes offered in schools.

Fact #1: Potatoes are healthy for children. A potato is a fat-free, sodium-free nutritional powerhouse and an excellent and/or good source of eight different vitamins and minerals, including two of the four most important nutrients deficient in kids'diets-potassium and fiber. In fact, a medium baked potato (5.3 ounces) provides more potassium than a medium banana, has as much fiber as broccoli and comes in at 110 calories.

Fact #2: Potatoes are currently being served in schools in healthy ways. In today's cafeterias, most potatoes served are baked, not fried. In fact, 90 percent of potatoes served in schools are baked, boiled or mashed-not fried. The majority of schools today (89 percent) do not have fryers in their kitchens. And the "french fries" served at most schools are actually oven-baked and come in at approximately 110 calories per half-cup serving.

Fact #3: Potatoes lead to increased consumption of other vegetables. According to a 2011 University of Washington study that analyzed government data, children whose weekday lunches included non-fried white potatoes consumed more other vegetables at lunch than kids who didn't eat potatoes.

Fact #4: Kids aren't overeating potatoes in or out of schools. According to research performed by Alliance for Potato Research and Education, National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES 2005-2008) data show that kids get less than one percent of their calories from white potatoes in any form from school cafeterias.

While there's more work to be done to reverse the years of potato bashing, the National Potato Council and our partners across the country see the Senate's action as an essential step toward keeping the nutrient-rich potato in school cafeterias, and, more importantly, in turning the public tide that was increasingly forming against the potato.