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Maine Senator Postpones Potato Nutrition Battle, For Now

It's hard not to think of french fries as a key part of school lunch, glistening like a beacon from the battered plastic tray. But if the folks at the U.S. Department of Agriculture have their way, we could see a lot fewer of them.

And that's not right, says Sen. Susan Collins. "The problem is that the potato has been unfairly singled out," she tells the Portland Press Herald. Collins, a Republican, is from Maine, the sixth largest potato-growing state in the country.

Collins has decided against offering an amendment to the Senate's agriculture spending bill today to force USDA to back off. But, the battle that's been raging for months over potatoes' proper place in the lunch line is far from over.

All year, a fight has been raging behind the scenes over USDA's proposed school nutrition guidelines — the agency's first update to the standards since 1994. The loudest complaints are against the agency's proposal to limit white potatoes and other starchy vegetables in school lunch to one cup a week.

Health experts say potatoes in the lunch line can crowd out other vegetables. Margo Wootan, a nutrition policy director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told NPR's Peter Overby in June: "When the kids are offered french fries versus carrots or green beans, too often the kids choose french fries."

CSPI dropped french fry boxes off at Senate offices last week to counter the potato lobbying. They were printed with the words: "Do kids really need french fries every day? Give other vegetables a chance!"

Meanwhile, the potato lobby is crying foul and touting the health benefits of potatoes. It's a tough job since a Harvard study came out this summer, fingering white potato products as one culprit for obesity. Even McDonald's is putting a limit on fries.

But National Potato Council CEO John Keeling argues that most schools bake their fries these days, reducing the number of calories by about half. "These are not your Daddy's french fries," he says.

Sen. Collins points out that potatoes have more nutrients than iceberg lettuce, another staple of school lunch, not to mention potatoes are cheap. "We remain concerned that unnecessary limitations on healthy and affordable vegetables can lead to a needless escalation in costs of the school meal programs," she said in a letter sent to appropriators in August.

Because of the potato issue, the House included a provision in its agriculture spending bill earlier this year to require the USDA to start over on its school food nutrition guidelines. But the Senate bill will remain silent on this point, aides say.

Collins won't offer a similar amendment in committee, but will wait until a later Senate floor debate, where there will likely be more supporters, a spokesman tells Shots.

The Senate Appropriations Committee is expected to finalize a $19.78 billion agriculture spending bill later today, sans potato language, clearing the way for it to move to the Senate floor.

The Senate committee bill is expected to cut spending over last year's levels by $138 million — $192 million if you count domestic food aid and foreign food education aid — aides say.

In light of recent highly-publicized food safety outbreaks overseas and domestically, only one agency is expected to get a boost, and that's the Food and Drug Administration. FDA oversees most of the U.S. food supply except for meat.

There will be cuts to the Women, Infants and Children Nutrition Program, but not as deep as in the House version, aides say. If the Senate approves the bill, it has to be reconciled with the House version before going to the President for signature into law.

But it's a big if. Single spending bills are rarely seen on the floor these day. They are much more often rolled up into massive omnibus spending bills.

And then there's the potential for the new budget "supercommittee" to override whatever the spending committees do.

Keeling is hopeful that USDA has received the message that the potato issue is complex, but as to what's ultimately going to happen, "it's anybody's guess," he says.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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