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Defending the Potato: Why Industry's Critique of School-Lunch Rules Has a Point

The National Potato Council is fighting to prevent potatoes from becoming nearly extinct inside school lunchrooms, arguing that the USDA's proposed new nutrition rules that limit white potatoes and other starchy vegetables to only one cup per week are unnecessarily draconian and don't make much nutritional sense.

Well, they have a point, even if not quite the one the organization is pushing.

The USDA, which dictates what's served in the national school lunch program through its detailed nutrition standards, updated its rules in January in order to make school lunch healthier and reduce the monotony of cafeteria choices. This meant that things like fries and Tater Tots were on the chopping block, if for no other reason than most kids are already eating heaps of these processed products outside of school.

But instead of taking the logical step of saying that kids should eat no more than one serving of french fries or processed potato products a week, the USDA has decided to sweep all manner of potatoes, up in their dragnet. Not to mention peas, corn and lima beans, which have also been rounded up into the loathsome "starchy vegetables" camp.

Consider a potato
The absurdity of this comes into clear focus when you consider what's in a potato. An old fashioned baked potato has more potassium than a banana, as much fiber as a serving of broccoli, tons of vitamin C and a good amount of magnesium, one of the nutrients Americans are most deficient in. And then there's green peas, which are, like all green vegetables, very nutritious. Shouldn't we all be excited if kids are eating 3 servings of green peas a week? And corn's not the most potent of vegetables, but it's got tons of fiber.

Yes, even freshly prepared potatoes have lots of starch and are high on the glycemic index, but these are the wrong carbs to be demonizing. Our nation's kids are not overweight and riddled with precursors for chronic disease because of a raging over-consumption of freshly baked and mashed potatoes. Try pizza crusts and baked goods.

In comments filed with the USDA, the National Potato Council, which represents most of the country's potato growers, argued for no limits on potatoes in school lunches, certainly an unrealistic goal. And they're trying, also probably in vain, to champion the French fry, even going so far as to redefine it as a "baked potato product that is shaped as a French fry," a reference to how fries are only fried once at the plant and then baked in school kitchens.

USDA's rules aren't much better
But the USDA's proposed rules aren't much better. Its starchy-vegetable limits will mean that schools can provide one serving of fries per week and either a baked potato or mashed potatoes, but not both. And after two servings of potatoes, there's no room for peas.

This sort of restriction highlights the underlying nutritional weakness of the USDA's approach to school lunch. Although the agency has taken the important step of encouraging more fresh fruits and vegetables, it makes no attempt to distinguish between how foods are prepared. Chicken is still chicken whether it's tumbled together with dozens of additives in industrial machines or cooked fresh by the lunch ladies. Milk is just milk whether it's sweetened with huge amounts of sugar or just served plain.

Image from the National Potato Council

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