Spud Wars: Potato Farmers Prepare to Battle New USDA Guidelines


In a couple of months, the menu for millions of elementary and secondary students are due for an overhaul as the U.S. Department of Agriculture prepares new rules designed to make school lunches healthier. Under the new rules, one particularly popular vegetable may soon find its presence in America's school cafeterias dramatically sliced: the humble potato.

Based on a report from the Institute of Medicine, the USDA is considering new guidelines for school districts that would call for reducing the use of white potatoes, in favor of dishing out at least a half cup of leafy green vegetables, orange veggies and legumes each week.

Potato farmers, as one would expect, are feeling a bit fried, and it looks like they're willing to strike back. Surprisingly, the looming food fight is not so much about money as it is about the reputation of the vegetable some call the spud.

Big Business

Last year, the potato industry produced 43.1 billion pounds of tubers, worth $3.45 billion, according to the United States Potato Board. That figure made it the biggest money maker overall for vegetable farmers. And while that's big bucks, the nation's schools buy only 1% of the total, said Gary Lucier, an economist with the USDA's Economic Research Service. The slice of action coming from schools is virtually the same as it was in 1999, when the USDA issued a report, "America's Eating Habits: Changes and Consequences."

But that relatively small impact of schools doesn't defuse the issue. "Even though the percentage is small, no one likes to lose any market share," Lucier said. "That's business."

And while the potato industry is far from going bankrupt, even if the nation's schools pull out every last baked tater tot, the school kids of today may be influenced to eat fewer potatoes as adults, said Lucier, who last year authored a report that examined how children carry vegetable eating habits into adulthood.

And that 's exactly what the potato people are worried about.

The Spud Strikes Back

"What we're looking at is the reputation of potatoes and that's what we're most concerned about," said Meredith Myers, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Potato Board. "The IOM report uses faulty logic. They assume they can encourage kids to eat more leafy greens and other vegetables by taking potatoes away. Potatoes are important to the diet. A medium-sized potato has no sodium, no cholesterol and is only 110 calories."

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The potato industry is concerned that a decision by the USDA to embrace the IOM's recommendations would send a message to parents who shop for groceries that other vegetables carry a higher value than the potato. But the potato industry is used to a good fight. For example, when the low-carb craze was wreaking havoc on the potato, bread, pasta and rice industries, the U.S. Potato Board launched a $4.4 million "Healthy Potato Campaign." Within 18 months, that effort made a dent in negative attitudes towards potatoes -- 29% of participants in a survey had negative views after the campaign, down from 33% before, Myers said.

Although the U.S. Potato Board is prohibited from applying pressure on regulators and legislators, the National Potato Council is not. The organization, however, is small, with a $1.4 million budget and four staff members. John Keeling, the council's CEO, said his group has hired dietitians as advisers and will be presenting data to the USDA's food nutrition service that will be putting together the proposal later this year.

"If we need to, we'll also hire a [school] meal planning expert," Keeling said.

But the folks at IOM say they're not asking kids to stay away from potatoes altogether. Instead, they're recommending the schools initiate a reduction in the level of potatoes served during the week and increase other leafy green and orange vegetables and beans.

"Evidence out there shows that Americans' consumption of starchy vegetables are at or exceed the dietary guidelines for Americans," said Christine Stencel, a spokeswoman for IOM. "But people have an under consumption of dark green leafy vegetables, orange and red ones." She added that the school lunch program is designed to supplement the other meals children receive and is not designed to be the only source of food for students.

A Five Year Cycle

The USDA is preparing to issue its interim rule later this year, which designed to bring school meals in line with the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans and Dietary Reference Intakes. Once the USDA issues its proposal, it goes out for public comment for 60 to 90 days and then the rule goes into effect, said Jean Daniel, USDA spokeswoman.

Currently, schools institute a meal pattern that includes protein, starch, fruit, vegetable and a minimum calorie count. The IOM is recommending setting a maximum calorie intake to fight off obesity among children, limit sodium, and encourage more fruits, vegetables and whole grains. These changes are part of the revision the dietary guidelines go through every five years.

"Every five years we look at consumption patterns and as a whole, how we are meeting a healthy lifestyle. Sixty-five percent of adults are obese and children, while it's leveling off, are still 19% obese," Daniel said.

She noted the existing guidelines are out there for schools to adopt, but they have the freedom to choose the types of food to serve and how to prepare them in order to meet the Dietary Guidelines. The USDA periodically conducts assessments of schools participating in the National School Lunch Program to evaluate their operation.

In the meantime, potato farmers are looking beyond schools for new markets.

"We can find someone else to sell them to. We're shipping fresh potatoes into many parts of Asia, like Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore," said Frank Muir, chief executive of the Idaho Potato Commission. "We hope to be in Vietnam soon."