The Potato Fights to Stay in School Lunches

Potatoes are under attack. Despite their status as one of the most cherished parts of a school lunch, the federal government is looking to limit the starchy staple's presence in cafeterias. But French fries aren't going without a fight, though their support may be motivated more by politics than greasy adoration.

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Tater Tots On the Outs

Over 31 million children eat school lunches every day. With a skyrocketing obesity epidemic, federal regulations on what these kids eat is a clear way to help control health concerns. Recently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) proposed significant changes to school lunches that would slice servings of potatoes, as well as other starchy foods such as corn and peas, to one cup per week. Those tater tots, French fries and the like would be replaced by leafy green vegetables, whole grains and fruits.

The USDA's proposal is the result of a multiyear analysis of child nutrition. Scientists and doctors from the Institute of Medicine were consulted, while over 132,000 public comments were received. The goal is to encourage healthier eating habits among children. In addition to replacing starches with more nutritious options, the USDA is hoping to reduce sodium intake and establish calorie guidelines that vary based on a child's age.

Spud Supporters Fight Back

Colorado Senator Mark Udall, a Democrat, and Maine Senator Susan Collins, a Republican, co-wrote a letter in July that aimed to prevent the USDA's potato intolerance. Their goal is to restrict the organization's ability to spend money on 'unnecessarily discriminating' against potatoes and other starches. The letter pointed to the health benefits of potatoes, which are high in potassium and fiber.

It also noted the easy accessibility and affordability of foods like potatoes to schools, which make them a logical choice in tough economic times. The senators suggested that the USDA could inadvertently worsen nutrition in school lunches, as the foods they suggest increasing are less readily available to schools. They remarked that a box of tomatoes, for example, is far more expensive than a box of potatoes.

The Politics of Potatoes

Udall, Collins and other opponents of the USDA's proposal may not be the altruistic spud backers they seem to be. Colorado and Maine are leading potato-producing states, which suggests that the interests of potato farmers, rather than child nutrition, may be a key factor in their actions. Colorado, for example, is the nation's fourth-largest potato growing region, from which $293 million in spuds were produced in 2010. In the end, the French fry may be saved by lobbyists with little regard for the health habits of millions of children.

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