There's been a long-running war over potatoes in federal programs.
Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Getty

WASHINGTON ― The Trump administration aims to give U.S. public schools more leeway on what they feed kids for lunch and breakfast, dismantling part of former first lady Michelle Obama’s agenda to make school lunches healthier.

The ultimate symbol in this food fight? Potatoes.

A draft federal rule would give schools more flexibility on several nutrition requirements, which critics have said would primarily result in kids eating more french fries ― as though President Donald Trump, known for his love of fast food, were remaking the former first lady’s school lunch standards in his own image.

The proposal does not explicitly say kids should eat more potatoes, but there’s no doubt it’s a big win for the potato industry. And it’s only the latest episode in a long-running tug of war over spuds in federal programs.

“From our industry’s standpoint, we’re in a much better place than we were when this all started,” said Kam Quarles, director of the National Potato Council, a powerhouse lobbying group.

The potato drama began well before Barack Obama or Trump occupied the White House.

Years of research by a branch of the National Academy of Sciences culminated in a 2006 report on the eating habits and nutritional needs of the beneficiaries of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, which helps millions of low-income mothers buy food.

Based on the report’s findings, in 2009 the USDA overhauled its rules for the program, known informally as WIC. The biggest change was that a portion of monthly benefits would be set aside for the purchase of fresh fruits and vegetables ― but not potatoes, with the exception of yams and sweet potatoes. The big problem with white potatoes? Americans already eat them too much.

The potato industry reeled, and prepared to ramp up its lobbying efforts, which by now are legendary. But first, the industry suffered another setback.

In 2010, Congress overhauled the nutrition standards in the National School Lunch Program. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act called on the USDA to implement new lunch rules based on scientific guidance similar to what it had done with the food vouchers for low-income mothers.

The bill was expensive, and Democrats initially balked when House leaders pulled funds from SNAP (often known as food stamps) in order to offset the cost ― but it was such a priority for the administration that President Obama smoothed things over at a White House meeting. The law ultimately became the cornerstone of Michele Obama’s legacy as a champion of healthy lifestyle habits.

The act itself was very complicated and led to intense, in-the-weeds lobbying. The ensuing USDA regulation, finalized in 2012, called for school lunches to have more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, as well as less salt and fat. The rule also called for a weekly limit on starchy vegetables such as corn, lima beans, green peas and white potatoes, prompting complaints from some school systems and an outcry from the potato industry. (The Washington-based nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, for its part, thought the regulation should have been harsher on white potatoes.)

Before the regulations took effect, lawmakers snuck into an appropriations bill a line killing “any maximum limits on the serving of vegetables” ― which included potatoes, corn and lima beans ― in school lunches and breakfasts. So instead of limiting starchy veggies, the USDA required schools to offer a minimum amount of non-starchy ones, such as leafy greens and beans.

Capitol Hill’s most outspoken critic of the original regulation? A Republican from Idaho, obviously.

“The USDA proposed rule [on starchy vegetables] would have been another completely unnecessary, unfunded mandate by the federal government,” Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) said at the time. He trumpeted the successful rule change he spearheaded, and also the nutritional benefits of potatoes, which are full of potassium and fiber.

“From our industry’s standpoint, we’re in a much better place than we were when this all started.”

- Kam Quarles, director of the National Potato Council

It wasn’t just the potato industry fighting the rules. Schools themselves joined the fray. The American Association of School Administrators complained that the regulations were overly onerous, potentially forcing schools to buy new kitchen equipment, for example. And kids, the association and other groups argued, wouldn’t necessarily like the healthier food, risking increased waste of meals.

The result has been an unusual political dynamic, with liberal policy advocates pushing for more restrictions in a social program as Republicans and schools seek more flexibility.

Democrats say Republicans are willing to harm the health of children as a sop to “Big Potato.”

“It’s outrageous what they are doing,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), a member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture that has jurisdiction over these sorts of issues, told HuffPost last week. “Our kids need to have healthy foods. That’s what these guidelines were about. They’re reversing it, and it is all probably industry-related and not about the public health of our kids.”

DeLauro said lawmakers had an obligation to make sure kids were eating right, and she wasn’t sympathetic to the argument that children want foods like french fries.

“My granddaughter, she’s 12 years old. If she could start eating chocolate in the morning, she would do it at 8 o’clock until bedtime,” DeLauro said.

While allowing for personal choice is a key part of the GOP argument ― kids like potatoes, so let them eat what they want ― Republicans also have some science on their side.

Amid intense lobbying by industry and lawmakers, the USDA asked the National Academy of Sciences to take another look at potato consumption among participants in the women, infants and children program. And in 2015, the scientists determined more access to potatoes wouldn’t be so bad for low-income mothers after all.

“The committee finds no direct evidence that consumption of white potatoes adversely affects health outcomes for WIC participants,” the review committee said, adding that allowing participants to buy white potatoes with their vouchers probably wouldn’t alter their overall potato consumption very much.

But Simpson did not rest. He managed to slip more pro-potato text into appropriations bills, this time giving school administrators leeway to serve more potatoes in the School Breakfast Program.

“You might be surprised that this amendment deals with potatoes,” Simpson said in a May 2018 markup of the bill when he first introduced his measure, to laughter in the room.

The Trump administration has tweaked the school lunch rules multiple times, having previously given schools more freedom to offer flavored milk and cutting back on whole grains.

The House Appropriations Committee has been ground zero for the potato fight in Congress. But during the last two years, it seemed few wanted to debate Simpson’s change to school breakfast rules, potentially affecting nearly 15 million children.

“The potato should not be maligned,” Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) said during the 2018 markup.

President Donald Trump famously — or infamously — decided in January 2019 that he would offer tables full of fast-food offerings as part of the White House visit by Clemson University's newly crowned national championship football team.
President Donald Trump famously — or infamously — decided in January 2019 that he would offer tables full of fast-food offerings as part of the White House visit by Clemson University's newly crowned national championship football team.

Simpson’s measure will expire in 2021, but in the school lunch regulation it unveiled last month, the Trump administration said it might make it permanent.

Potatoes got a bad rap in past years because researchers found it easy to win grants for studies on the supposed evils of the most popular vegetable in America, according to Blair Richardson, CEO of the research and marketing group Potatoes USA.

“Whether you’re the New York Yankees, the Dallas Cowboys or the New England Patriots, people love to beat up on Number One,” Richardson said.

Research published in the past five years has been more favorable to potatoes, Richardson said, pointing to one such study, published in January, that suggested daily consumption of non-fried potatoes was associated with better overall diet quality in adults.

But for the most part, dietary advice hasn’t really changed, said Colin Schwartz of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “Americans need to eat more vegetables, and they need to eat a variety of vegetables,” Schwartz said ― adding that potatoes are often fried, which is not the most healthful preparation.

Geri Henchy, a nutrition expert with the Food Research & Action Center, an anti-hunger advocacy group, said her complaint concerns the way lawmakers keep inserting themselves into a process that ought to be more scientific.

The problem is that Congress puts itself in a difficult position when it says part of its job is to micromanage the nutrition standards in federal food programs,” Hency said. “It’s hard for them to say no.”

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