U.S. Department of Agriculture nutrition standards for school meals won’t short-change potatoes, if Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Mark Udall, D-Colo., have anything to say about it.
The two lawmakers got their point across Oct. 18, when the Senate unanimously approved an amendment to the fiscal year 2012 Senate agriculture appropriations bill that backers say will protect the flexibility of schools to serve potatoes and other starchy vegetables in national school meal programs.
It is uncertain when Congress will meet in conference committee to craft an agriculture appropriations bill that combines the Senate bill with an earlier passed House version. The short-term continuing resolution to fund the USDA in fiscal year 2012 expires in mid-November.
The amendment prevents the USDA from imposing limits on potatoes while keeping in place the requirement that school meals be consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
“I am delighted that my colleagues in the Senate have accepted our amendment,” said Collins said in a news release. “This means USDA cannot proceed with a rule that would impose unnecessary and expensive new requirements affecting the servings of healthy vegetables, such as white potatoes, green peas, corn, and lima beans.”
The House agricultural appropriations bill faults the USDA’s school meal rule’s “overly aggressive implementation schedule and unrealistic demands on changes in nutrient content,” and directed the USDA to issue a new proposal.
In January, the USDA proposed doubling fruit servings for breakfasts to one cup. The daily lunch requirement would grow from a half-cup of fruits and vegetables to three-fourths to one cup of vegetables and one-half to one cup of fruit.
The proposed rule singles out “dark green and orange vegetables” for increases, but limits potatoes, peas and corn to a cup a week in lunches and none in breakfasts.
Supporters of Collins’ amendment included the National School Boards Association, the American Association of School Administrators, the American Farm Bureau and the National Potato Council.
"Since publishing its proposed school meal changes in January, USDA has heard from tens of thousands of school districts, parents and taxpayers who are concerned about limiting healthy vegetable options for students, and the $6.8 billion price tag of the regulation,” said John Keeling, executive vice president of the National Potato Council, in a news release. “With this afternoon’s Senate action, we trust USDA will heed the significant concerns raised by schools, citizens and elected representatives alike, and maintain the flexibility local schools need to deliver healthy meal options to school children.”
Tracy Fox, president of Food, Nutrition & Policy Consultants LLC, Washington, D.C., said the Collins amendment likely will restrict what the USDA can do when they publish a rule on school nutrition standards.
“It does limit them but there are ways to promote variety,” Fox said.
Although many progressive school officials supported USDA’s proposed standards, Fox said there was a substantial portion who resisted the proposed restrictions on potatoes because of cost issues, spuds’ ease of preparation and their acceptability with kids.