PORTLAND, Maine — Sen. Susan Collins, who hails from Maine's potato country and picked potatoes as a girl, is working to restore some respect for the humble spud, which is on the verge of being virtually banished from the nation's school lunch programs.
New guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture would eliminate potatoes altogether from school breakfasts and drastically reduce the amount of potatoes served in lunches.
Collins, R-Maine, said the unassuming white potato has its place alongside more highfalutin vegetables in school cafeterias. She believes potatoes are healthy, as long as they're not fried.
"I certainly agree that French fries is not the healthiest choice, but a baked potato can be a good source of potassium for our children," said Collins, who has enlisted Democratic Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado, another potato-growing state, to help her fight the anti-spud movement.
Collins and Udall will attempt to strip funding to implement the new guidelines when the USDA appropriations bill goes to the Senate floor sometime in the coming weeks or months. The House-approved USDA appropriations bill already prohibits funds from being used to further the proposed USDA guidelines.
The proposal announced by the USDA in January puts focus on fruits, vegetables and whole grains while limiting sodium, banning trans fats and reducing starches.
The guidelines would limit starchy vegetables — corn, peas and lima beans, in addition to potatoes — to two servings a week. That's about one cup.
Potato growers across the nation claimed the first major nutritional overhaul of students' meals in more than a decade unfairly singled out and stigmatized spuds, which already took their lumps along with pasta and bread and other carbo-loaded foods during the low-carb diet craze a few years ago.
Many scientists insist there are better alternatives.
Regardless whether it's baked, boiled or fried, a medium-sized potato packs up to 220 calories and is a food that has been associated with weight gain in the U.S., said Dr. David Heber, director of the UCLA Center For Human Nutrition and author of "What Color is Your Diet?"
And folks needn't feel sorry for potato-loving kids, he said.
"They're not going to stop eating potatoes. They'll be eating them at home, and they'll be eating them in restaurants. But I think the school cafeteria should be place where children learn about healthy nutrition, not a copy of a fast-food restaurant," Heber said.
The National Potato Council says the proposal would carry a large but unknown cost to farmers in lost sales, as well as a $6.8 billion cost for school districts that will have to line up more costly foods mandated under the guidelines.
Some questioned whether reducing potato consumption at school would yield big improvements in children's health.
Putting an increased emphasis on physical education — getting couch potatoes into the gymnasium or onto a sports field — would have a far greater impact on reducing childhood obesity, said Tim Hobbs, director of development for the Maine Potato Board.
"There's other ways to address childhood obesity. I don't know that limiting potatoes in the school lunch program is going to have the desired impact," Hobbs said.
Virtually all agree that the problem is the French fry, a ubiquitous item on school menus in many parts of the country, sometimes getting served every day.
Reducing the servings of potatoes and French fries is necessary to make room for more servings of healthier vegetables, which are being muscled off school menus, said Margo G. Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
But some argued getting rid of the French fry doesn't require getting rid of the potato.
Heidi Kessler, school nutrition manager for Let's Go, a program aimed at fighting childhood obesity at the Barbara Bush Children's Hospital at Maine Medical Center, supports the goals of the proposed school lunch nutrition guidelines. But she agreed with Collins that the USDA should have focused on the way potatoes are prepared, targeting French fries instead of all white potatoes.
"They're inexpensive, kids like them and they're easy to store," she said, "and they absolutely have nutrient value that can contribute to a healthy diet."
Many schools already are reducing potatoes.
In Portland, where 5,000 meals a day are served at 16 schools, potatoes are limited to once or twice a week, said Ron Adams, food service director for Portland schools.
"The potatoes and some of those other starchy vegetables are part of a balanced diet," Adams said. "It's about how often that those items are on the menu."
The new school lunch guidelines were required by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which required the USDA to issue science-based guidelines based on recommendations of the Institute of Medicine.
If all goes according to plan, the new rules would take effect next summer. But first, the USDA must review more than 130,000 comments from supporters and opponents. All of those comments will be considered before the final rule is issued, said Kevin Concannon, USDA undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services.
Some see the writing on the wall.
The government already put the kibosh on potatoes in the USDA's program for low-income pregnant women and their children, known as WIC, barring federal dollars from being spent on potatoes.
Now the USDA is going after potatoes again.
Wootan said parents are on board.
"When parents tell their kids to eat their vegetables, they don't mean French fries. They don't mean hash browns, either. Potatoes have a role in the school lunch program, but they shouldn't on the menu every day. The USDA proposal is completely reasonable," she said.