School Food Reform: Enter the Lobbyists

by Bettina Elias Siegel on November 2, 2011

The New York Times has an excellent article today describing the stiff opposition of the food industry (along with some Congressional representatives of potato-producing states) against current attempts to improve school food nutrition standards.  According to the report, over $5.6 million has been spent to date by lobbyists opposing the proposed school food rules to be promulgated under last year’s passage of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act.

At particular issue are proposed reductions in sodium (which, according to the food industry, will make food unpalatable to children) and a reduction in the amount of starchy vegetables (read: potatoes) that may be served to school kids.  Needless to say, potato-producing states are not pleased and have been successful so far in attempting to block that particular proposal.

For more, check out this recent New York Times report on the potato controversy specifically, along with blog posts about it by Ed Bruske (Better D.C. School Food) and Chef Ann Cooper and Chef Beth Collins. (And I can’t leave the potato topic without sharing Stephen Colbert’s humorous take as well.)

As Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said in today’s Times story:

This whole fight obscures the fact that the U.S.D.A.’s proposal is about helping kids eat a wide variety of vegetable and make lunches overall healthier. . . . It’s about our children’s health. I think that point has long since been lost.

So sad, and so true.
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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Dana Woldow November 2, 2011 at 11:09 am

My favorite part of the NYT article was this:
“The National Potato Council, for example, said the proposal to offer fewer weekly servings of potatoes in favor of other vegetables and fruits was overly restrictive. “Everyone thinks that the only thing kids eat in school are French fries,” said John Keeling, the council’s executive vice president and chief executive. “But 90 percent of the potatoes served in schools are baked, boiled or mashed.” ”

Sounds great, right – until you realize that “baked” french fries are included in that 90%. And just so we are clear, those “baked” french fries WERE fried before being frozen; the “baked” part refers to the final cooking process, which is done at the school. The fries are finished off by being baked, which allows them to be called “baked”, but they certainly did encounter a fryer earlier along their path to the cafeteria, even if not actually in the cafeteria.

Once upon a time, schools all had deep fryers and the fries were finished by being fried, so in theory I suppose the fact that they are now being finished in a way which does not add even more fat calories to them via a second frying, is an improvement, putting them into the “better for you” category. But, as I always say, these fries are “better for you” in the same way that it would be “better for you” to be hit in the head with a brink only once rather than twice.

And this Potato Council bigwig’s obfuscating of the issue, based on his opinion that “baked” fries somehow do not count as fries, is pathetic.

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Bettina Elias Siegel November 2, 2011 at 8:14 pm

I was wondering about that 90% figure. . . And I totally agre about the frying issue. I was so happy to learn that the Texas Dept. of Agriculture (which administers our food program) had required schools to get rid of deep fryers, until I realized that, just as you say, the food is coming already fried by the manufacturer!

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Kate November 2, 2011 at 12:43 pm

I was glad to see a commenter on the Colbert site note that potatoes are of Andean origin, not an Irish food.

There is a really interesting article about the history of the potato in this month’s Smithsonian magazine.

I can see not wanting to serve potatoes that are fried, but I’m not sure that a plain potato is a “bad” food like some would like to suggest, especially after reading the Smithsonian article.

I think for menu planning it should be offered in place of other carbs from time to time..not necessarily treated as a full fledged vegetable.

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Dana Woldow November 2, 2011 at 1:51 pm

I love potatoes, and if 90% of the potatoes in school lunches really were being served “baked boiled or mashed” then that would be one thing- but they aren’t. The overwhelming majority of the potatoes in school lunches are French fries/tater tots.

The other issue is that because potatotes are relatively inexpensive, and kids do like them (even when they are legitimately baked boiled or mashed!), school cafeterias tend to rely on them rather too heavily, to the exclusion of other vegetables. With schools on such a tight cafeteria budget, especially at elementary, they are unlikely to offer both potato AND another vegetable, when the veg requirement can be met by potato alone.

So while it may not be a bad thing for kids to be offered mashed or boiled potatoes, you don’t want that to be the ONLY vegetable they see in a week. When I first got into the “fixing school food” game 10 years ago, it was not at all uncommon to see potatoes as the veg 4 days out of 5, and corn, green bean, or peas on the 5th day. That was it – never was a carrot to be seen, or a dark leafy green, or even a sweet potato or some butternut squash. I am fine with keeping non-French fry-tator-tot type potatoes, but within limits, so that The Noble Spud does not squeeze out everyone else in the vegetable kingdom.

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lindtfree November 2, 2011 at 7:26 pm

I grew up in the Red River Valley region of eastern North Dakota/western Minnesota, an area where versatile and flavorful red-skinned potatoes are a major crop. As a result, I am a “potato snob.” Idaho russets? Dry and metallic-tasting. Yukon golds? Better flavor, but still poor texture. Since Red River Valley reds are difficult to find in the region where I now reside, my adult potato consumption is infrequent.

Although potatoes, corn, and peas are not really vegetables in a nutritional sense (they all belong in the carbohydrate category), potatoes alone are not dietary culprits: frying is a problem; so is serving them with too much butter, sour cream, cream sauce, cheese sauce, or gravy. Also, many nutrients are found in potato skin. Please don’t waste time and nutrition by peeling potatoes!

Potatoes can have a regular place in a healthy diet. . .but not fried and not in the “vegetable” category.

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