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Published January 25, 2011, 11:33 AM

Meal guidelines step backward

WASHINGTON — The potato industry thinks the health of our nation’s children is a top priority and applauds efforts to improve children’s nutrition.

WASHINGTON — The potato industry thinks the health of our nation’s children is a top priority and applauds efforts to improve children’s nutrition.

Possible reductions

However, recommendations to reduce vegetables such as potatoes, corn and peas as outlined in the proposed rule on Nutrition Standards in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs issued recently by the U.S. Department of Agriculture could have adverse effects on children’s health.

“Potatoes are a nutrient-rich vegetable,” says Katherine Beals, associate professor in the Division of Nutrition at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. “Potatoes provide two of the four nutrients of concern for children — potassium and fiber. We need to help kids get more of these vital nutrients in their diets or they could face serious long-term health consequences.”

School menu staple

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee identified potassium and fiber as nutrients of concern for children. However, USDA is recommending limiting the availability of a vegetable that not only provides these essential nutrients in a calorie-efficient package, but also is a vegetable children actually want to eat.

A recent menu modeling analysis shows if potatoes are offered in the school lunch meal plan four days a week, the requirements of the dietary guidelines are met and the intake of potassium is superior to the level in the proposed rule. Also, the analysis shows eating potatoes at breakfast means more vegetables for kids.

Touting taters

Beals says USDA should not limit potatoes on school menus to ensure children are meeting daily vegetable and nutrient needs. She notes:

n A medium-sized serving of oven-baked French fries provides more potassium than a medium banana and as much fiber as spinach — and baked potatoes offer additional potassium and fiber.

n Potatoes are packed with other vitamins and minerals including vitamin C, vitamin B6, folate, manganese, niacin and phosphorus.

Vegetables in meals

John Keeling, executive vice president and CEO of the National Potato Council, says the industry appreciates and supports what USDA has done and does to improve school meals, but if the proposed guidelines are implemented, they could have serious unintended consequences that would reduce rather than advance vegetable consumption.

Keeling urges USDA to consider the facts when it comes to potatoes: they are nutrient-rich and affordable, and on today’s school menus the vast majority of potato choices are oven-baked or boiled — not fried.

“From eliminating transfats to reducing sodium, the potato industry continues to improve the healthful nature of potatoes served in schools to help improve children’s health,” Keeling says.