Here come the tater-haters.
Last year, USDA guidelines banned white potatoes from purchase with Women, Infants and Children (WIC) supplemental nutrition program benefits. Now additional guidelines seek to totally eliminate white potatoes from school breakfast programs, and severely limit servings of white potatoes and other “starchy vegetables” in school lunch programs.
From the proposed USDA guidelines: “A maximum of 1 cup of starchy vegetables may be served per week. Starchy vegetables include white potatoes, corn, green peas, and lima beans.”
“A basic premise of the 2005 Dietary Guidelines is that nutrient needs should be met primarily by consuming a variety of nutrient-dense foods from the basic food groups.” (Reference: http://www.fns.usda.gov/cnd/governance/regulations/2011-01-13.pdf, pg. 2495, section III. )
The guidelines were developed under the premise that by removing servings of potatoes and so-called “starchy vegetables”, schools could serve more green vegetables and other “nutrient-dense foods”. But the reality is that, while we’re spending time banning and limiting whole, natural foods, we are still feeding kids plenty of processed, food-like substances like chicken nuggets, hot dogs, Pop-Tarts, and margarine. Do we really expect a side-dish crackdown directed at a natural food to make a dent in this epidemic?
If the USDA wants variety, shouldn’t the potato have a place? Potatoes are rich in nutrients like vitamin C. In fact, one potato contains more vitamin C than an entire head of iceberg lettuce. Shouldn’t we look at how often potatoes are served — and the ways in which they’re adulterated before they reach our plates? (See shaped and formed potato-like substance, right.) There are certainly other starchy carbohydrate sources such as sweet potatoes, quinoa, and wild or brown rice that supply energy, fiber, and nutrients, and are more nutritionally-rounded than the white potato. But do schools serve them? Can they afford them?
Perhaps is would be more productive for the USDA to classify the white potato as a starch, and specify that it be served alternately (not in addition to) other starches such as rice or bread. This would accomplish what they say is their goal: to make more room on our children’s plates for a variety of colorful vegetables and fruits. This is the right direction.
This singular starch ban fails to address a basic premise behind the problem of obesity: if you’re not looking at the diet as a whole, you’re missing the big picture. Japanese people, for example, consume large quantities of starchy white rice. Yet their rates of obesity are 3.2% versus the U.S. rate of 30.6% – we’re number one, and Japan is number 28. (Source: NationMaster.com.)
So let’s give the potato its place. I’ve prepared (and packed in lunches) many healthy, filling meals with a baked potato as a base – topping them with chili, salsa and black beans, broccoli, or fajita vegetables. I don’t eat them every day, and I don’t choose the most enormous potatoes in the store. I moderate my own variety, and I’m sure our schools can do the same.