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Potato People Fear Losing Place in Lunch Line

Agriculture Department Eyes Limits on Potato Servings in Schools

Shannon Dininny/Associated Press
Fried potato products are a big seller in school lunch programs, and some school officials fear kids won’t buy lunch at all without the salty sides.

A government effort to make school meals healthier has potato growers terrified that they will lose their opportunity to cultivate young spud lovers.

“Let’s face it — the potato is not sexy,” said Chris Voigt, executive director of the Washington State Potato Commission. “It’s brown.”

The Department of Agriculture is poised to impose a one-cup-per-week limit on the amount of white potatoes served to students in school cafeterias — the latest blow to a vegetable that is already struggling with its image.

Voigt is quick to admit the American potato has a PR problem — and that traditional lobbying isn’t working. So he decided to live on nothing but potatoes for two months to prove that the vegetable is nutritious.

“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.

The department’s rules, based on research from the Institute of Medicine, are intended to encourage children to try leafy, dark vegetables such as spinach. Proponents say this is not about knocking the potato, but rather about getting children to diversify their vegetable palate.

Health advocates argue that most of the potatoes consumed in schools are greasy processed products, such as french fries and Tater Tots. While most schools have ditched deep fryers for ovens, those crispy potato sides are typically pre-fried in factories before shipping.

“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.”

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