French, fried and off the menu: Should the federal government require schools to cut back on potatoes?
By Jeremy Quattlebaum, Student Voices staff writer
Update, Jan. 25, 2012: The USDA released its new nutrition standards for schools. The verdict on French fries? They can stay, but likely will be a little less salty.
Fans of French fries, beware: Pretty soon, you may be eating less of them in your school cafeteria.
The federal government is proposing sweeping changes to the nutrition guidelines regarding school lunches that bump up the servings of leafy greens and fruits, and cut down on starchy vegetables like potatoes.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is in charge of determining what ends up in school cafeterias. As part of the Obama administration’s health initiatives like Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” Campaign, the USDA has proposed guidelines that strike potatoes from the breakfast menu and allow only two servings of potatoes – about one cup – per week at lunch. Also on the hit list are other starchy vegetables like peas, lima beans and corn, lunchroom staples for many schools. The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 required the USDA to update nutrition guidelines based on scientific recommendations.
Citing rising rates in childhood obesity and nutritional deficiencies in students’ diets, the USDA is pushing for more nutritional foods. “[C]urrent school menus are not required to offer the recommended quantities of fruits and vegetables (including vegetable sub groups) and whole grains,” reports the USDA’s Nutritional Standards in the National Lunch and School Breakfast Programs. And some experts say that potatoes contribute to obesity, with one medium spud containing 220 calories, no matter how it’s cooked.
Congress is involved, too, because it votes on the USDA’s budget. The House’s agriculture spending bill requires the USDA to revise its school nutrition guidelines because of the potato issue. The Senate bill doesn’t address potatoes.
So how does a federal agency that deals with farms and agriculture get the authority to decide what schools serve? It comes down to subsidies. A subsidy is money that the government gives to a business to help prevent that business from going under. Farms and agriculture receive heavy subsidies to produce, or in some cases to not produce, crops that are key to our diets but may not make a lot of money. Corn, potatoes, and other starchy vegetables are some of the most subsidized crops.
On the flip side, schools participating in the National School Lunch Program receive a subsidy from the USDA for every meal they serve, a plan approved by Congress. The catch is that the participating schools must serve certain foods and meet certain guidelines. Until recently, school lunches were also a way to get rid of excess crop harvests, so if the nation had a surplus of spinach, you could pretty much guess that your school cafeteria would be serving creamed spinach every week for a while. This fed students and allowed farmers to make a decent profit.
But recently, that changed. The USDA has made it a priority to educate students about healthy eating. And some argue that it should start in the cafeteria.
Not everyone is happy with the attack on potatoes. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the sixth-largest potato-growing state, is crying foul, arguing that the tubers are getting a bad rap. “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,” Collins said in an Associated Press interview. Collins argues that by limiting the number of potato servings in school lunches, the government is hurting the farmers and the school budgets. “We remain concerned that unnecessary limitations on healthy and affordable vegetables can lead to a needless escalation in costs of the school meal programs,” she said in a letter sent to the Appropriations Committee in August.
What do you think?
Do you agree with the government’s proposal to cut the servings of potatoes offered through school lunches? Should school cafeterias be places where students can learn about proper nutrition? Will the new lunch guidelines help curb childhood obesity? Are there other, better alternatives? Join the discussion and let us know what you think!
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