The Potato Could Be on Its Way Out as School Lunch Staple

First they came for the soda, but I didn’t say anything because I don’t drink soda. Then they came for the pizza, and I didn’t say anything because I don’t eat pizza. But now, the US Department of Agriculture is coming for the potato, proposing to limit white potatoes to just one cup per week, and Chris Voigt, the executive director of the Washington State Potato Commission, realized that it was finally his time to speak.

According to Voigt, there’s nothing nutritionally wrong with white potatoes, and attacks on the vegetable are motivated by the fact that leaving potatoes in children’s lunches is not sexy enough for the new healthy lunch program being promoted by the First Lady Michelle Obama.

According to Janie Lorber of Roll Call, to show how nutritionally rich potatoes are, Voigt even agreed to eat nothing but potatoes for four weeks to prove that it has all the vitamins, minerals and other nutritional components to keep someone well-fed even when all other food is excluded.

“We were doing all the things we were supposed to — meeting with our delegation and USDA, writing letters — and no one was listening to us,” said Voigt, who said he lost 20 pounds and lowered his cholesterol by 67 points during his potato binge that ended Nov. 30. “This is not really about lost sales or market share. Those kids are growing up thinking potatoes are bad for you.”

The new standards, which would apply to breakfasts and lunches served in public schools starting in the fall of 2012, limit starchy vegetables including white potatoes, peas, corn and lima beans to two half-cup servings a week. It would be the first update to the regulations in more than 15 years and also the first time the department has placed explicit limits on a certain food. The rules also require schools to cut back sodium and saturated fat intake and increase the amount of whole grains offered.

Experts who are pushing the newer rules say that this isn’t about vilifying the potato. It is simply meant to diversify the amount of vegetables students eat on a daily basis – especially to include leafy, dark vegetables like spinach.

There’s also the matter of how most schools serve the potato. A child getting a potato product in a typical cafeteria gets a highly-processed, fried and salted specimen like french fries or tater tots.

This is not to vilify any one particular vegetable or class of vegetables,” USDA spokeswoman Jean Daniel said.
The potato industry, however, says the new regulations amount to a smear campaign and will ultimately hurt children, who rely on potatoes for fiber and potassium.

“If kids don’t eat it, it’s not nutrition,” said John Keeling, CEO of the National Potato Council. “They want to get children to eat more variety, and in that quest, they’ve lost sight of what’s healthy.