potatoIn a couple of months, the menu for millions of elementary and secondary students are due for an overhaul as the U.S. Department of Agriculture prepares new rules designed to make school lunches healthier. Under the new rules, one particularly popular vegetable may soon find its presence in America's school cafeterias dramatically sliced: the humble potato.

Based on a report from the Institute of Medicine, the USDA is considering new guidelines for school districts that would call for reducing the use of white potatoes, in favor of dishing out at least a half cup of leafy green vegetables, orange veggies and legumes each week.

Potato farmers, as one would expect, are feeling a bit fried, and it looks like they're willing to strike back. Surprisingly, the looming food fight is not so much about money as it is about the reputation of the vegetable some call the spud.

Big Business

Last year, the potato industry produced 43.1 billion pounds of tubers, worth $3.45 billion, according to the United States Potato Board. That figure made it the biggest money maker overall for vegetable farmers. And while that's big bucks, the nation's schools buy only 1% of the total, said Gary Lucier, an economist with the USDA's Economic Research Service. The slice of action coming from schools is virtually the same as it was in 1999, when the USDA issued a report, "America's Eating Habits: Changes and Consequences."

But that relatively small impact of schools doesn't defuse the issue. "Even though the percentage is small, no one likes to lose any market share," Lucier said. "That's business."

And while the potato industry is far from going bankrupt, even if the nation's schools pull out every last baked tater tot, the school kids of today may be influenced to eat fewer potatoes as adults, said Lucier, who last year authored a report that examined how children carry vegetable eating habits into adulthood.

And that 's exactly what the potato people are worried about.

The Spud Strikes Back

"What we're looking at is the reputation of potatoes and that's what we're most concerned about," said Meredith Myers, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Potato Board. "The IOM report uses faulty logic. They assume they can encourage kids to eat more leafy greens and other vegetables by taking potatoes away. Potatoes are important to the diet. A medium-sized potato has no sodium, no cholesterol and is only 110 calories."

The potato industry is concerned that a decision by the USDA to embrace the IOM's recommendations would send a message to parents who shop for groceries that other vegetables carry a higher value than the potato. But the potato industry is used to a good fight. For example, when the low-carb craze was wreaking havoc on the potato, bread, pasta and rice industries, the U.S. Potato Board launched a $4.4 million "Healthy Potato Campaign." Within 18 months, that effort made a dent in negative attitudes towards potatoes -- 29% of participants in a survey had negative views after the campaign, down from 33% before, Myers said.

Although the U.S. Potato Board is prohibited from applying pressure on regulators and legislators, the National Potato Council is not. The organization, however, is small, with a $1.4 million budget and four staff members. John Keeling, the council's CEO, said his group has hired dietitians as advisers and will be presenting data to the USDA's food nutrition service that will be putting together the proposal later this year.

"If we need to, we'll also hire a [school] meal planning expert," Keeling said.

But the folks at IOM say they're not asking kids to stay away from potatoes altogether. Instead, they're recommending the schools initiate a reduction in the level of potatoes served during the week and increase other leafy green and orange vegetables and beans.

"Evidence out there shows that Americans' consumption of starchy vegetables are at or exceed the dietary guidelines for Americans," said Christine Stencel, a spokeswoman for IOM. "But people have an under consumption of dark green leafy vegetables, orange and red ones." She added that the school lunch program is designed to supplement the other meals children receive and is not designed to be the only source of food for students.

A Five Year Cycle

The USDA is preparing to issue its interim rule later this year, which designed to bring school meals in line with the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans and Dietary Reference Intakes. Once the USDA issues its proposal, it goes out for public comment for 60 to 90 days and then the rule goes into effect, said Jean Daniel, USDA spokeswoman.

Currently, schools institute a meal pattern that includes protein, starch, fruit, vegetable and a minimum calorie count. The IOM is recommending setting a maximum calorie intake to fight off obesity among children, limit sodium, and encourage more fruits, vegetables and whole grains. These changes are part of the revision the dietary guidelines go through every five years.

"Every five years we look at consumption patterns and as a whole, how we are meeting a healthy lifestyle. Sixty-five percent of adults are obese and children, while it's leveling off, are still 19% obese," Daniel said.

She noted the existing guidelines are out there for schools to adopt, but they have the freedom to choose the types of food to serve and how to prepare them in order to meet the Dietary Guidelines. The USDA periodically conducts assessments of schools participating in the National School Lunch Program to evaluate their operation.

In the meantime, potato farmers are looking beyond schools for new markets.

"We can find someone else to sell them to. We're shipping fresh potatoes into many parts of Asia, like Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore," said Frank Muir, chief executive of the Idaho Potato Commission. "We hope to be in Vietnam soon."

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Potatoes are not fattening. It's how many/much you eat, how they're prepared (what you put on them) that pack on calories. Of course this is common sense and we all have been robbed of that in recent years it appears. I would like to tell a bit of a tale about ketchup as a vegetable. As someone who grew up making homemade tomato juice, soups, sauces and KETCHUP, canning same in glass jars for supplying our family from the garden for the year - I KNOW that a tablespoon of ketchup contains the equivalent of 1/4 to 1/2 of a tomato. Milk comes from a cow, pork from a pig and eggs from a chicken - lettuce grows in soil - ditto all other vegetables and fruits - even off trees - not the aisle of a grocery. Back to basics folks.

November 03 2010 at 8:00 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The food cops are out again. If the liberals have THEIR way, they'll have us all on tofu and bean sprouts.

November 03 2010 at 7:59 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to dave1marine's comment

Oh, nonsense! I'm a liberal and love potatoes in every possible way they can be prepared. Hate tofu. Pretty neutral about sprouts. And Dave, as for what you eat, I really don't care. Your menu and your politics are none of my business. The furthest thing from my mind is forcing you to eat specific foods. Or to tell you what to think. But I suspect you wouldn't mind telling me what to think.

November 04 2010 at 12:51 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Biancuh Cutiepie

My highschool had a seperate line for.... BREADSTICKS and BAGELS. You got breaksticks with butter and salt all over them with an option of cheese dip or cocktail sauce. I think that is the real problem in the lunchrooms. You only get so many french fries with your meal of the day. So many carbs over in that one line. That was the longest lunch line too. It was a lot longer than the featured item paired with french fries.

November 03 2010 at 7:58 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

They'll cut back on potatoes, but they readily offer pizza, hamburgers, sugared soda and any & all "fast food" type crap? If a balanced,nutritional meal was truly the focus, they'd cut out ALL the crap and really FOCUS on nutrition!

November 03 2010 at 7:57 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Do the idiots at the school districts not understand that the only offensive thing about the potatoe is when it's FRIED or MASHED with loads of cream????? French Fries, 'Tator Tots, Mashed Potatoes, etc... But, the humble potatoe is LOADED with nutrients and baked whole and served with salsa, or greek yogurt or fat free sour cream, etc..., or sliced and oven-baked, sprinkled with herbs and sea salt and fresh cracked black pepper is great, too! To eliminate the entire potatoe is absurd!! They just need to understand how to cook it in a healthy waym so the nutrients stay intact, and trans fats and cholesterol are out, and sodium is at a minimum, and that is to BAKE it dry, always, and serve them with healthy options like fresh salsa, plain greek yogurt, spices, etc...!!

November 03 2010 at 7:54 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

My goodness...what is next...meat? Too much of anything is not good for a person. A balanced diet is the key. You can't eliminate any one thing. this is plain silly. Go ahead pick on the farmers pretty soon they wan't want to feed anyone but thesmelves and then when will everyone be?? Close to starving!

November 03 2010 at 7:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Everything in moderation. It's not so much the potato itself, its what we do to it to perk up the bland flavor of it. The problem is that children own't eat green leafy things generally. I think if they would do crudite' and fruit they oould have a better shot at the kids not throwing it away. I remember when my kids were in elementary school the amount of food thrown away was huge. Which is why I have always packed their lunches, with really good food. A typical lunch for them ( even now that they are 15 and 17) is a 100% juice box that has extra vitamins in it, a sandwich on whole wheat bread, or a whole wheat wrap yogurt, baby carrots and or apples, trail mix, or peanuts, raisins, granola bars, ... so many good choices that they eat every day at achool. And of course a container of water. Parents need to be sure their children have healthy food to take to school and not rely on the school lunch and free school lunch program. Most of it just gets thrown away and the kids little developoing brains and bodies dont get what they need.

November 03 2010 at 7:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Potatoes themselves are NOT evil-it's how you cook them and what you put on them! I had gallstones last year, and thanks to the red tapeworms in the insurance biz, I had to wait FIVE MONTHS for my surgery, yet when it came to what I could eat that could keep the gallstones dormant, I was flying blind. Baked potatoes with fat-free sour cream were among the few things I COULD eat! They don't need to outlaw potatoes altogether-just quit frying the darn things and make them baked or restrict the junky toppings, and you still have a decent vegetable! Everything in moderation, people! What's next, outlawing meat in schools because it's bad for you WHEN CONSUMED IN EXCESS?

November 03 2010 at 7:30 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It's all about balance, and it's about time that it's recognized that our kids need some healthier options in their school lunches. They're not removing potatoes from the menu -- just trying to give our kids healthier proportions of starches in their diets. If our children are exposed to the healthier choices of green/red/orange veggies and fruit at an earlier age, hopefully they'll pick up a healthy habit that they'll carry on into their adult life, which hopefully will result in a healthier future for our kids and families. This is a change of food standards that is long overdue.

November 03 2010 at 7:21 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Finally !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! America look at your waist line!!!!!!!!! Most of it is there because you are too lazy and cannot metabolize all those white carbs- which will kill you in the end. Potatoes are evil

November 03 2010 at 7:13 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply