USDA school-food proposal gets under spud industry’s skin

Gracie Ferrell Contributor
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French fries may soon be bullied out of school cafeterias if the government gets its way, but Big Tater isn’t backing down.

Rallying around school food service professionals and members of Congress, the spud industry is pushing back against a U.S. Department of Agriculture proposal to limit starchy vegetables in school meals to just one cup per week.

Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins picked potatoes as a child. “The rule simply goes too far,” she said during an Oct. 5 luncheon hosted by the National Potato Council. “It makes no sense whatsoever.”

While the Obama administration points its finger at fried potatoes and chips as childhood obesity villains, Collins said the potato isn’t “getting the credit it deserves” for being rich in potassium and other key nutrients children need.

Leo Lesh, the recently retired executive director of Denver Public Schools, had a similar reaction. “Even under the old regulations that the USDA had,” Lesh said, “there isn’t a child in America that would get overweight or obese from eating a school breakfast and a school lunch. It can’t happen.”

A new National Potato Council survey reached 245 food service professionals and found that just five percent of them believe the new USDA regulation will improve the quality of a child’s overall health. Sixty percent or more think the rules could increase food costs, lower student participation in school lunch programs and increase the amount of wasted food.

Beyond the proposal’s nutritional ramifications, critics are also concerned about adding new costs to already cash-strapped school districts. The regulations would cost schools at least $6 billion over the next decade because they would be required to nearly double the amount of fruit students are served.

It’s going to cost us over $50 million,” said Dennis Barrett, director of food services for Los Angeles Unified District, a school system that serves more than 700,000 meals every weekday.

Meme Roth, president of National Action Against Obesity, is not impressed by arguments that school lunch costs would rise if potatoes were marginalized.

“What is the worth of a child’s life?” Roth asks. “Why was it not nanny-state to force unhealthy foods on kids, but it is to push for healthier ones?”

With the average child rushed to make it through lunch lines and eat in just 25-30 minutes, Nutrition for the Future president Dayle Hayes said children already face the challenge of scarfing down existing portions. And the USDA’s proposal might lead to even more plate waste.

“I can put all the dark greens and orange veggies on a plate, but if no one buys from me then it doesn’t help me in a business sense — or the kids in a nutrition sense,” Debbi Beauvais, school nutrition spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, told The Daily Caller.

Collins has joined forces with Democratic Sen. Mark Udall from Colorado — another potato-growing state — to combat the Department of Agriculture’s anti-spud regulatory push. The two senators will attempt to withhold the funds needed to implement the proposal when the bill comes to the Senate floor in the coming weeks.

As for kids who can’t get enough of the spud, UCLA Center For Human Nutrition director Dr. David Heber said there is no need to worry.

“They’re not going to stop eating potatoes,” Heber told the Huffington Post. “They’ll be eating them at home, and they’ll be eating them in restaurants. But I think the school cafeteria should be place where children learn about healthy nutrition, not a copy of a fast-food restaurant.”

Lesh, the former Denver Public Schools chief, is unimpressed. He’s concerned that the USDA’s proposal would teach students the wrong lessons about starchy vegetables like potatoes, corn and peas.

“This gives students the impression that these aren’t good, nutritional things,” he said.