School nutrition regs draw strong spud response

11/04/2011 10:25:00 AM
Ashley Bentley

The potato industry has a victory under its belt in its fight to keep potatoes unrestricted on school lunch menus, but the fight isn’t over.

The Oct. 18 passage of the Collins-Udall amendment, which reverses recent legislative language to set a two-serving-per-week maximum on potatoes in public schools, was a big win for the industry, said Mark Szymanski, director of public relations for the Washington, D.C.-based National Potato Council.

The amendment prohibits the U.S. Department of Agriculture from using its funds to set maximum serving limits on any vegetable in school meal programs.

Regardless of their market share in the school foodservice sector, potato marketers alike have been following and advocating for potatoes in this issue.

The Senate was on recess the last week of October, but the industry awaits passage of the Senate appropriate bill to send the issue to conference committee.

“You handcuff their ability to keep costs down,” Szymanski said. “What it comes down to is if a school serves a baked potato Monday, it can’t serve any starchy vegetables the rest of the week.”

More expensive options

The tangential problem that creates is that schools must find other vegetable options to fill the rest of the week, and virtually all other vegetable options are more expensive than potatoes, the potato industry argued.

“If schools can keep costs down with vegetables like potatoes, they can afford more expensive vegetables or premium proteins like grain-fed beef,” Szymanski said.

A baked potato counts as two half-cup servings of potatoes.

“We were correcting an obvious wrong,” said Karen Bonaudi, director of marketing and industry for the Washington State Potato Commission, Moses Lake. “It was very exciting for us. We’re on third base, and now we want to come home.”

Although schools aren’t big users of the red potatoes marketed by Grand Forks, N.D.-based Associated Potato Growers, general manager Paul Dolan said it is important for the industry that all potatoes be allowed in schools.

“Any loss of usage affects everybody,” Dolan said.

Jamey Higham, vice president of foodservice for Idaho Falls, Idaho-based Potandon Produce LLC, was involved in the Washington Public Policy Conference in early October and was able to meet with legislators on Capitol hill about the proposed cap on schools’ use of potatoes.

The group of potato propnents shared with congressmen and women the potential effects of the regulations on school foodservice budgets.

Mike Carter, chief executive officer of Rosholt, Wis.-based Bushman’s Inc., said he has also opposed proposed limits for potatoes on school menus to elected leaders.

“We don’t think limiting potatoes on a menu is the way to show children how to eat properly,” Carter said. “If prepared properly, potatoes should absolutely be part of a healthy diet.

Ted Kreis, marketing and communications director for the Northern Plains Potato Growers Association, East Grand Forks, Minn., said the association is watching the situation very closely.

“Obviously we feel very strongly that potatoes deliver potassium, fiber and vitamin C at very reasonable cost, and to have them replaced with more expensive vegetables makes very little sense,” Kreis said.

Even without the proposed regulations, schools across the country are working toward healthier menus.

“One thing I’ve noticed is that they’re really pushing fruits and vegetables,” said Richard Medina, vice president of Superior Tomato-Avocado, San Antonio. “We’re seeing more baking potatoes on menus and more salads.”

Medina said schools use more potatoes than they do onions.

“Schools change their menus up every week, but you’ll always get potatoes in there,” Medina said.

Not just french fries

The National Potato Council surveyed school foodservice directors about the ways they use potatoes in schools, the results of which address the misconception that students are only consuming potatoes in french fry form, Szymanski said.

About 80% of potatoes served in schools were baked, boiled or mashed, not fried, the research showed. It did not break down fresh versus processed potatoes. When schools are serving fries, most are oven-baked.

The National Potato Council also cited research from the University of Washington and from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey that show kids get less than 1% of their calories from white potatoes in any for at school cafeterias, and that children who ate nonfried potatoes at school consumed more vegetables of all types.

If the proposal had passed, it would have cost $6.8 million over five years to implement, and 30% of that cost would be to address the starchy vegetable issue, Szymanski said.

Potatoes sit on a slippery slope when it comes to government nutrition regulation, Szymanski said. The Women, Infants and Children Nutrition Program cut white potatoes a few years back, and with the potential rule for school lunches, this issue became even more important for preventing a precedent.

“We need to stop this from occurring because who knows what would happen next with potatoes,” Szymanski said. “We’ve been playing defense for years, but now we feel like we have some momentum.”



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