The potato will not be kicked out of the nation’s school cafeterias without a fight.
Fearful that the Obama administration’s planned “healthy lunch” guidelines will be worse than blight for growers, the spud industry is rallying school leaders and members of Congress from both sides of the aisle to its crusade to halt implementation of the rules before they take effect as scheduled next year.
The regulations, which are now under internal review after the Agriculture Department was flooded with more than 100,000 comments from opponents and supporters, would apply to students who qualify for low- or no-cost meals under the federal School Lunch Program and would greatly limit what schools could serve up each day.
The practical upshot, potato partisans fear, will be fewer tater tots, hash browns and french fries on cafeteria trays nationwide.
“The rule simply goes too far. It makes no sense whatsoever,” said Sen. Susan M. Collins, a Republican from the potato stronghold of Maine, speaking at a Wednesday luncheon hosted by the National Potato Council.
The potato, she added, “isn’t getting the credit it deserves” for being a rich source of potassium, fiber and vitamins.
Students could eat only one serving of potatoes, peas, lima beans or corn during lunch each week. A cob of corn or a cup of peas on Monday, for example, would mean no potatoes for the rest of the week. Students may have to bid farewell to home fries and hash browns, because spuds for breakfast are expected to be outlawed.
Proponents of the changes want to limit the amount of starch and sodium youngsters can scarf down in the cafeteria as part of the effort to fight child obesity, a cause championed by first lady Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Thomas J. Vilsack.
Mr. Vilsack last week said the dietary guidelines came about because research found there was “too much fat, too much sodium, too much sugar, not enough fruits, vegetables, low fat dairy and whole grains” in school lunches.
Saying the final rules are still being worked on, he said on NPR that “oftentimes, it isn’t the potato - it’s the way in which the potato is produced or made available to students that may create an issue.”
But critics see the proposal as a half-baked plan to micro-manage lunchtime and the nation’s diet.
In a bipartisan show of strength, Ms. Collins intends to team up with fellow Maine Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, a Republican, Sen. Mark Udall, Colorado Democrat, and others to maintain local freedom in deciding what students can eat each day. They also plan to highlight the unintended consequences that the USDA’s rule will have.
The new regulations are expected to cost at least $6 billion over the next decade, since districts will be forced to nearly double the amount of fruit students must be served. Educators believe much of that food will be wasted, since many children have trouble finishing current portions.
“If you prepare a meal and it ends up being dumped into the trash, you’re not doing those students any good,” Ms. Collins said.
She and other opponents also fear the creativity of school cooks will be restricted to the point that many students opt to brown-bag it, defeating the purpose of ensuring that children get at least one balanced, healthy meal in between classes.
To put pressure on the USDA, the Potato Council on Wednesday rolled out a new survey, which asked school food service directors from across the country what they think of the proposed guidelines.
Forty percent believe the quality of children’s health would decrease if the rules are implemented. Sixty percent expect the cost of running meal programs to rise dramatically. More than 60 percent believe more food will end up in the trash can, and 65 percent believe fewer students will eat in the school cafeteria.
Ms. Collins and her allies plan to use that data in their efforts to, at the very least, push back the USDA’s planned implementation date of August 2012.