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Published February 22, 2011, 09:31 AM

Potatoes face challenges

Potatoes — promoted as “America’s Favorite Vegetable’’ by supporters — could be playing a smaller role in school lunchrooms nationwide.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

Potatoes — promoted as “America’s Favorite Vegetable’’ by supporters — could be playing a smaller role in school lunchrooms nationwide.

The industry also is confronted with years of declining at-home potato consumption.

But spuds will do just fine if the potato industry successfully communicates their many health benefits, two U.S. potato officials say.

The industry is stressing “our good, healthy, nutritious potato message,” says Lon Bailey, a Malin, Ore., potato farmer and co-chairman of the U.S. Potato Board’s international marketing committee.

Bailey and John Keeling, executive vice president and chief executive officer of the Washington-based National Potato Council, spoke Feb. 16 at the International Crop Expo in Grand Forks, N.D.

The two-day event, which concluded Feb. 17, had about 180 exhibitors and was expected to draw 5,000 or more people, according to Greg Radke, one of the organizers.

Temperatures nearing 40 degrees and good winter driving conditions helped attendance, he says.

The event featured sessions on potatoes, small grains and soybeans/dry edible beans, as well as speakers intended to be of general interest.

Proposed limit on spuds

Of particular interest to the potato industry this winter is a proposed U.S. Department of Agriculture limit on the amount of potatoes that can be included in school menus.

USDA would allow no more than one cup of starchy vegetables, including potatoes, to be served per week.

“There’s no science to support what they’re doing,” Keeling says. “Their observations cannot lead you to the conclusions they come to in any kind of scientific way.”

He labels the USDA proposal as ill-advised “social engineering” to “reprogram what people eat.”

The proposal, if enacted, would increase schools’ food costs and limit schools’ flexibility, but fail to provide students with more nutritious meals, he says.

The National Potato Council, which focuses on federal legislative, regulatory, environmental and trade issues, is working with school nutritionists to fight the proposed USDA limit, Keeling says.

He encourages potato growers nationwide to contact their local school nutritionist to discuss the USDA proposal.

“Reach out to your school professional who you know is in charge of school lunches in your area. Talk to them, ask them what they know,” he says.

“I’ll tell you what happens when you start the conversation. You get about 30 seconds into it, and they take over. Because they understand. They know exactly what kids will eat. They know exactly what the difficulties in providing cost-effective solutions to school meals are,” he says.

USDA is taking public comments on the proposal, which doesn’t require Congressional approval, until April 13.

Another key issue for the National Potato Council is making it easier for Mexicans to buy U.S. potatoes.

A Mexican tariff on U.S. frozen potato products, originally set at 20 percent but reduced last August to 5 percent, has cost the U.S. potato industry about $50 million, Keeling says.

The tariff was implemented in retaliation for a trucking dispute between Mexico and the United States.

The U.S. Department of Transportation now has a proposal on the table to resolve the dispute, Keeling says.

Less at-home consumption

Americans are eating fewer potatoes at home, according to a survey by the U.S. Potato Board, the Denver-based potato marketing organization.

In 2000, Americans on average ate potatoes 79 times at home. The number trended lower during the decade, falling to 67 in 2009.

A drop in consumption of fresh potatoes is driving the long-term decline, the survey finds.

But potato growers should be encouraged that Americans, on average, have an increasingly positive attitude toward potatoes, Bailey says.

In 2004, 35 percent of Americans had a negative attitude toward potatoes. By 2010, the rate had dropped to 24 percent, a decline of 11 percent, according to the U.S. Potato Board’s survey.

“That doesn’t seem like a lot. But with more than 300 million people in the United States, that’s quite a bit,” he says.

The drop in negative attitude was fueled by a decline in the number of people with health-related concerns about potatoes, Bailey says.

The potato industry is enjoying considerable success increasing spuds’ popularity through the use of social media such as Facebook and Twitter, he says.

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