New rules could all but suspend starches from public schools

When spuds were all greasers, they deserved to get kicked out of school.

Deep-fat french fries and oily tater tots got the heave-ho from most cafeterias, as schools in Maryland and across the country tried to improve child nutrition.

Potatoes that wanted to stay on the menu had to go to reform school, returning as low-fat, oven-baked "fries," baked potatoes or mashies made with skim milk.

Now even those goody-two-shoes spuds face near-expulsion.

Proposed federal nutritional requirements for the National School Lunch Program would allow school cafeterias to offer students no more than one cup of starchy vegetables per week.

The proposed restrictions, which could take effect as early as fall 2012, would apply to white potatoes, corn, peas and fresh (not dried) lima beans. If the cafeteria dishes up half-cup servings of corn on Monday and half-cup scoops of peas on Tuesday, that's it for starches for the week.

That would present a challenge for many school districts, which consider potatoes in particular a popular, filling, low-cost and, yes, nutritious, part of the lunch tray.

"If they don't want french fries, say so, but don't cut all of them out," said Mary Klatko, director of food and nutrition services for Howard County's public schools, where the tuber's on the menu in one form or another nearly every day.

Although potatoes pack lots of potassium, vitamin C and (if served in their skins) fiber, and it's possible to prepare them without adding lots of fat and salt, the federal government figures American kids have their fill of them outside school. After all, researchers have found that the No. 1 "vegetable" consumed by our nation's children is the french fry.

"Our proposed rule ensures that schools may continue to offer students starchy vegetables like potatoes while balancing the need for a wider variety of vegetables in children's diets," said Kevin Concannon, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services.

"USDA proposed a well-balanced, science-based rule that would improve the nutritional quality of meals served to children," Concannon said. "The proposed rule is the product of years of careful development and review by the USDA of available scientific data."

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 requires the USDA to propose new regulations based on the recommendations from the National Academies' Institute of Medicine. An IOM committee that came up with the proposal found that children eat more than enough starchy vegetables, but do not consume enough legumes or dark green and orange vegetables, according to the USDA.

That explanation does not sit well with school food professionals like Klatko, who notes with considerable pride that meals in Howard schools exceed current federal nutritional standards. She thinks healthfully prepared starchy vegetables should continue to be mainstays.

"I can't serve tacos without corn, and if we're having a hot turkey sandwich, they want mashed potatoes," Klatko said. "There's lots of potential for potatoes. The kids do like their potatoes. It's a thing that makes them feel full."

Since the USDA's proposed changes were made public last winter, there has been a lot of concern in school cafeterias around the country, said Klatko, who serves as federal legislative chairwoman for the Maryland School Nutrition Association.

The limits on starchy vegetables are just one part of the proposal, which also calls for, among other things, reducing sodium in meals and increasing the whole-grain content of breads. But for many, the starchy vegetable aspect has stood out since the rules were proposed in January. (They are expected to be finalized by early next year so they can be implemented in the 2012-2013 school year.)

"This is the top one people are complaining about," said Klatko.

Potato growers, as you might imagine, aren't pleased either. They contend the USDA is relying on outdated ideas about potatoes.

"I think they suffered from a misconception about what's being served," said John Keeling, CEO of the National Potato Council. "Less than 10 percent of schools even have deep-fat fryers anymore. And they're on the way out where they are."

In recent years, as childhood obesity has become a big issue, school cafeteria managers have sought out lower-fat ways to prepare potatoes and food suppliers have scrambled to reformulate their products, Keeling said.

"They're not your daddy's french fries," Keeling said. "They're a different product. A typical serving has 80 to 110 calories."

And then there's the question of whether kids will embrace the spinach or squash that subs for tater tots.

"The other nasty assumption that USDA makes is that kids are going to eat all this other stuff," Keeling said. "It's only nutrition if kids eat it. … If the dark green leaves end up in the trash can, nobody's better off."

It also irks white-potato growers that sweet potatoes get a pass, even if they are turned into baked fries with the same salt and fat profile of their white counterparts.

Sweet potatoes do contain lots of beta carotene. Keeling said that shouldn't matter because beta carotene has not been labeled a "nutrient of concern," as potassium has. Both sweet and white potatoes are good sources of potassium.

"I'm not trying to slander sweet potatoes, but USDA will allow an unlimited amount of sweet potatoes," he said. "Baked sweet potato fries — they have a halo and we, right now, have horns. They have virtually identical nutritional profiles with exception of beta carotene."

He notes that white potatoes cost 3.4 cents per serving while sweet potatoes cost 37 cents.

"At the same time we're laying off teachers … schools should have the flexibility to deliver nutrition in cost-effective ways," he said.

Weaning school cafeterias off white potatoes is not impossible, even when finances aren't flush. Baltimore City schools have cut back on how often they serve starchy vegetables in recent years, not intentionally but because the district was focused on expanding its food choices, said Mellissa Honeywood, chef/dietitian for city schools.

"Two years ago, we began really reducing our starchy vegetables," she said. "There were fries or tater tots every day."

As the district added new menu items, including all-vegetarian Meatless Mondays, the starchy classics showed up less frequently in the menu rotation.

"We didn't eliminate any item; what we did was expand," Honeywood said.

If adopted, the proposed regulations would still require the district to tweak its menu a bit.

In city elementary schools, starchy vegetables show up three times on the menu for the first week of school, as oven-baked fries, mashed potatoes and corn. One of those would have to go, since each starch is doled out in half-cup servings. The menu for the following two weeks does not exceed the proposed one-cup limit.

"It won't be as dramatic a jump for us," Honeywood said. "If your menu had those starchy vegetables every day, it's going to be a challenge. … With the new regulations, nothing's off the table. You'll just have to … rearrange it."

Her main concern is that schools and students be given enough time to adapt to the changes. Otherwise, she said, they risk turning off students, who might opt to pack a less healthy lunch or eat nothing at all.

"If we make the healthiest food possible and the child doesn't eat it, then we haven't done our job," she said. "The last thing anybody wants is to have a child go hungry or have less healthy snacks."