On the Table

Fight flares over potatoes in schoolkids' meals

CORRESPONDENTNovember 16, 2011 

There's a food fight going on over school cafeteria meals. The battle provides important lessons for all of us.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is trying to modify national school meals guidelines to improve kids' diets. The last time substantial changes were made was in the mid-1990s.

I know the process well. I was working as a health policy advocate back then on behalf of professional and nonprofit groups that supported changes proposed by USDA that would have radically overhauled the national school lunch program.

Some of the proposed changes stuck; other didn't. At the time, insiders called it the biggest food fight over school meals in 30 years.

Twice during this rulemaking process USDA issued a final rule that the food industry didn't like. Both times, lobbyists sought relief from Congress, which enacted laws that trumped the USDA rules.

Each time, USDA had to modify its rules to accommodate the limits set by Congress.

And that's where we are again today.

Delivering fat

This time, the aim is the same - to further improve the nutritional quality of school meals. The target this time? The potato.

That's because, as commonly eaten, potatoes are vehicles for excess fat calories and salt in children's diets. About one-third of children in this country are overweight or obese, and about 40 percent of their calories are eaten during lunch at school.

The latest proposed change would have limited starchy vegetables - by far, that means the potato - to not more than one cup per week. The change would limit dependence on French fries but also give kids exposure to a wider variety of vegetables, including super-nutritious dark green and orange vegetables and legumes.

The USDA's decision has prompted a lobbying campaign by food industry and agriculture groups that stand to lose financially if fewer potatoes are eaten in schools.

The result: The House and Senate blocked the USDA's proposed rule. The department will have to come up with a different plan.

Two lessons

The proposed changes would have helped improve school meals. Instead, forces within the food industry are having their way.

So, what can we learn from this tater tit-for-tat?

No. 1: Special interests still run Washington. Public health goals should hold greater sway in Congress but are often overwhelmed by well-financed industry groups.

No. 2: Give more scrutiny to those potatoes you eat. They come in many forms, often loaded with salt and extra calories from added fats.

Potatoes aren't all bad. But when they crowd out leafy greens, carrots, broccoli and cauliflower, we miss out on important and needed nutrients.

Suzanne Havala Hobbs: suzanne@onthetable.net

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