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Potato Lobby Turns Up The Heat In School Lunch Battle

When the potato lobby speaks, it always puts its best spuds forward. Yesterday at a National Press Club lunchtime briefing to promote the nutritional value of the vegetable, that meant a full bar of baked potatoes, french fries (baked, not fried), sour cream, cheddar cheese, chopped tomatoes, spinach and broccoli. Yes, according to sources close to the food, it was scrumptious.

The group, which has been fighting the U.S. Department of Agriculture's proposed school nutrition guidelines to limit white potatoes and other starchy vegetables to 1 cup a week, rolled out some big guns today, in the form of lunch ladies, to butter up the press.

The National Potato Council released a survey of 245 school food service directors showing how most think the new rules would lead to higher costs, more wasted food, and lower participation in the school lunch program.

Schools are looking for healthier ways to prepare food. "Today's school lunch is not your school lunch you remember," Dayle Hayes, a registered dietician, said at the briefing.

The keynote speaker at the National Potato Council event, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, didn't stop for a bite, even though her home state is one of the biggest producers of potatoes. She said she had other plans for lunch.

Collins has been giving the potato lobby her time all year. She's spoken out frequently against the USDA's proposal.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told The Salt recently, the move is an effort to reduce the amount of french fries kids eat and clear a space for other vegetables, like carrots or green beans.

The proposed limits don't sit well with Collins. "This means if a school serves a medium baked potato on a Monday it could not serve a full serving of corn or more potatoes for the rest of the week," she said. "That makes no sense whatsoever." She has vowed to strike the USDA's potato language when the agricultural spending bill reaches the Senate floor.

Collins and other potato supporters stressed the nutritional value of the spud, including potassium and dietary fiber. They also said potato bars, which are growing more common in public schools, help entice kids to eat other vegetables and important foods like low fat cheese and broccoli and spinach.

And those oft-maligned french fries? the council says only 10 percent of schools even have a fryer today.

A final ruling from the USDA is expected early in 2012 — and Vilsack says the department is taking into account the concerns that have been raised about potatoes.

Collins noted she and her five siblings ate some type of potato almost every day growing up in rural Maine, and none of them are overweight.

Kaiser Health News is an editorially-independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan health care policy organization that is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

Copyright 2011 Kaiser Health News. To see more, visit http://www.kaiserhealthnews.org/.

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