New rules could all but suspend starches from public schools

Potatoes, corn, peas and other veggies could nearly disappear from cafeterias under proposed federal nutritional guidelines

  • Potatos, corn and other starchy vegetables could find themselves all but expelled from school cafeterias under proposed nutrition regulations that could take effect next school year.
Potatos, corn and other starchy vegetables could find themselves… (Alex Garcia, MCT )
August 23, 2011|By Laura Vozzella, The Baltimore Sun

When spuds were all greasers, they deserved to get kicked out of school.

Deep-fat french fries and oily tater tots got the heave-ho from most cafeterias, as schools in Maryland and across the country tried to improve child nutrition.

Potatoes that wanted to stay on the menu had to go to reform school, returning as low-fat, oven-baked "fries," baked potatoes or mashies made with skim milk.

Now even those goody-two-shoes spuds face near-expulsion.

Proposed federal nutritional requirements for the National School Lunch Program would allow school cafeterias to offer students no more than one cup of starchy vegetables per week.

The proposed restrictions, which could take effect as early as fall 2012, would apply to white potatoes, corn, peas and fresh (not dried) lima beans. If the cafeteria dishes up half-cup servings of corn on Monday and half-cup scoops of peas on Tuesday, that's it for starches for the week.

That would present a challenge for many school districts, which consider potatoes in particular a popular, filling, low-cost and, yes, nutritious, part of the lunch tray.

"If they don't want french fries, say so, but don't cut all of them out," said Mary Klatko, director of food and nutrition services for Howard County's public schools, where the tuber's on the menu in one form or another nearly every day.

Although potatoes pack lots of potassium, vitamin C and (if served in their skins) fiber, and it's possible to prepare them without adding lots of fat and salt, the federal government figures American kids have their fill of them outside school. After all, researchers have found that the No. 1 "vegetable" consumed by our nation's children is the french fry.

"Our proposed rule ensures that schools may continue to offer students starchy vegetables like potatoes while balancing the need for a wider variety of vegetables in children's diets," said Kevin Concannon, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services.

"USDA proposed a well-balanced, science-based rule that would improve the nutritional quality of meals served to children," Concannon said. "The proposed rule is the product of years of careful development and review by the USDA of available scientific data."

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 requires the USDA to propose new regulations based on the recommendations from the National Academies' Institute of Medicine. An IOM committee that came up with the proposal found that children eat more than enough starchy vegetables, but do not consume enough legumes or dark green and orange vegetables, according to the USDA.

That explanation does not sit well with school food professionals like Klatko, who notes with considerable pride that meals in Howard schools exceed current federal nutritional standards. She thinks healthfully prepared starchy vegetables should continue to be mainstays.

"I can't serve tacos without corn, and if we're having a hot turkey sandwich, they want mashed potatoes," Klatko said. "There's lots of potential for potatoes. The kids do like their potatoes. It's a thing that makes them feel full."

Since the USDA's proposed changes were made public last winter, there has been a lot of concern in school cafeterias around the country, said Klatko, who serves as federal legislative chairwoman for the Maryland School Nutrition Association.

The limits on starchy vegetables are just one part of the proposal, which also calls for, among other things, reducing sodium in meals and increasing the whole-grain content of breads. But for many, the starchy vegetable aspect has stood out since the rules were proposed in January. (They are expected to be finalized by early next year so they can be implemented in the 2012-2013 school year.)

"This is the top one people are complaining about," said Klatko.

Potato growers, as you might imagine, aren't pleased either. They contend the USDA is relying on outdated ideas about potatoes.

"I think they suffered from a misconception about what's being served," said John Keeling, CEO of the National Potato Council. "Less than 10 percent of schools even have deep-fat fryers anymore. And they're on the way out where they are."

In recent years, as childhood obesity has become a big issue, school cafeteria managers have sought out lower-fat ways to prepare potatoes and food suppliers have scrambled to reformulate their products, Keeling said.

"They're not your daddy's french fries," Keeling said. "They're a different product. A typical serving has 80 to 110 calories."

And then there's the question of whether kids will embrace the spinach or squash that subs for tater tots.

"The other nasty assumption that USDA makes is that kids are going to eat all this other stuff," Keeling said. "It's only nutrition if kids eat it. … If the dark green leaves end up in the trash can, nobody's better off."

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