Astute Inside Track readers will recall that earlier this year, PreventObesity.net worked alongside friends such as the Pew Charitable Trusts and National Alliance for Nutrition and Activity to send nearly 140,000 comments to the U.S. Department of Agriculture supporting improved nutrition standards for public school meals.
Many of you took part in that effort, telling the USDA to serve more fruits, vegetables and whole grains in schools. But like nearly everything that is discussed among the political class in Washington, the standards have inevitably been met with backlash, with opponents calling them a spud. A huge amount of attention is being paid to a small segment of the standards that seek to reduce the amount of starchy veggies such as the potato that are served in school meals.
The USDA doesn’t want to sack the potato entirely, mind you. The agency says the new standards merely aim to introduce students to a variety of other vegetables they might not otherwise be eating, a spokeswoman told ABC News.
“The Institute of Medicine and other experts have advised the department that parents already do a great job of serving potatoes to their kids at home, so they don’t need to eat as many potatoes at school,” said USDA spokeswoman Jean Daniel. “The improved nutritional guidelines will add variety to the vegetables our kids currently eat such as carrots, tomatoes and leafy greens ... reducing sodium and increasing whole grains.”
Undeterred, the National Potato Council, the potato’s lobbying arm in Washington — yes, even vegetables have a lobbying arm — has gone on the offensive. They’ve launched a website specifically targeting the proposed standards and touting all the benefits of the spud.
Many experts working in the childhood obesity movement actually agree that potatoes can be a healthy part of a meal. But the problem with potatoes in schools is that often, they are the sole vegetable being served — and typically, they are prepared in an unhealthy fashion.
Lindsey Turner, a researcher with Bridging the Gap, tells The Inside Track that her group’s research has shown potatoes are served in abundance in public schools in unhealthy ways, often fried or pre-fried and then reheated.
For example, Bridging the Gap found that during the 2007-08 school year, nine percent of elementary schools offered deep fried potatoes and 53 percent served oven baked french fried potatoes in a la carte venues. Similar research conducted during the 2006-08 school years found that in 52 percent of high schools, french fries were served some days or most every day.
(Full disclosure: Bridging the Gap is funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. PreventObesity.net is a project of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.)
“Part of the issue is making sure the schools have the facilities to prepare the product that doesn’t involve a lot of fat,” Turner says.
It isn’t all bad news for the potato lobby, we point out. While the new standards seek to reduce the consumption of white potatoes in schools, they actually encourage schools to serve more sweet potatoes.