The Senate struck a blow for tater tots, French fries and mashed potatoes in school lunches on Tuesday, voting to block a U.S. Department of Agriculture rule that would have limited potato servings in lunch lines.
The future of the USDA's proposed rule is still up in the air, however, as the amendment prohibiting vegetable limitations is on an appropriations bill that had not been passed as of press time Thursday.
The rule, introduced in January 2011, proposes several subgroups of vegetables as opposed to the current "vegetable" category. Schools would be required to serve almost four half-cup servings of vegetables per week, almost double the current requirement.
But servers cannot simply dish up twice the amount of tots; the rule makes a distinction between dark green vegetables, orange vegetables, legumes such as most beans and starchy vegetables.
The last category includes potatoes, corn, lima beans and peas, meaning a meal containing a baked potato and a half-cup serving of peas would max out the school's starch requirement for the week.
That limitation sent the potato industry, some school districts and members of Congress into a frenzy, saying potatoes are nutritious when prepared correctly.
An amendment co-sponsored by Sens. Jim Risch and Mike Crapo, both R-Idaho, and passed on Tuesday blocked the department from putting limits on serving potatoes or other vegetables in school lunches.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said the proposed rule would cost school districts money and reduce the amount of vegetables children actually eat in school meals. Collins is the original sponsor of the amendment.
Liz LeFevre, a clinical dietician at St. Luke's Wood River Medical Center, said some kids are more likely to eat potatoes than other vegetables.
"I spoke with one girl at the Blaine County School District who said potatoes are the only vegetables she likes," LeFevre said.
There's nothing wrong with potatoes, she said, but added, "If those are the only vegetables [students] are getting, there's a problem."
The problem with only eating potatoes or other starchy vegetables to fulfill a daily vegetable requirement is that such foods are higher in complex carbohydrates than other vegetables. Carbohydrates are turned into sugar by the human body, excesses of which are stored as fat.
Potatoes are much more likely to be eaten than the other vegetables offered, said Duane Sorenson, food services director for Chartwells, the company contracted by the school district to provide school meals.
"We offer vegetables every day," he said. "It's not real popular, but we offer a hot vegetable and raw vegetables every day."
The high school's meal on Friday includes an apple, carrot sticks and a hot vegetable mix alongside Szechuan chicken over brown rice. A look at the rest of the week—with menus including chicken fried steak and turkey carnitas—shows that each meal contains at least three possible servings of fruit and vegetables, well over the proposed requirements. Only one meal includes potatoes.
Mike Chatterton, business manager for the school district, said the school's relatively healthy menu plan was implemented last fall and uses far fewer potato products than traditional school meals.
"I don't think we use enough potato products," he said of the impact the proposed rule would have had on the lunch plan. "I just don't think it would have an impact."
Chatterton and Sorenson said the schools don't have any fryers, meaning any French "fries" that appear on the lunch line—none this month, according to a menu posted on the school district website—are actually baked.
"Since we went to the more sustainable menus, they have gotten rid of a lot of the quick stuff to feed students," Chatterton said. "Definitely it's going to cost us a little more, but the parents asked for it."
Parents may have asked for it, but especially in high school, that doesn't mean the students will eat it, LeFevre said. Exposure to a wider variety of vegetables such as spinach, carrots, kale and broccoli can help kids learn to eat their veggies, she added. However, she said, school lunches are not completely effective when it comes to making sure kids are eating well.
"It all depends on what they have through the rest of the day," she said. "Having a good lunch is really important, but I personally believe a lot of the problems come from home."
She said going home from school and eating sugary snacks or other unhealthy foods can contribute to obesity and undo the effects of a healthy lunch.
In addition, high school students can pick and choose among the options offered, making it difficult to tell what students are actually eating.
"There are some really healthy options, and there are some not-so-healthy options," LeFevre said of the school's menu. "I have no doubt that a kid could eat a really balanced meal."
The amendment passed Tuesday would still allow the USDA flexibility to dictate the preparation of potatoes in the final version of the school lunch rule.
The proposed rule also places limits on calories, saturated fat, trans fat and sodium. It also would require schools to offer more fruit with offered breakfasts.
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Potatoes contain 110 calories, more potassium than a banana and nearly 4 grams of dietary fiber. "There are a lot of benefits to potatoes," said Liz LeFevre, clinical dietician at St. Luke's Wood River Medical Center. The problem comes in preparation, she said. "Obviously, fried is not the best way," she said. "The less processed, the better." LeFevre suggests baked potatoes, as they can most easily be served without additional fat.