AUGUSTA — For about a decade, parents and public health officials throughout Maine and the country have fought for improvements in school nutrition programs, specifically to combat the growing obesity epidemic among children. These efforts are of great importance to the children of Maine, as we continue to rank as the most obese state in New England.

The significance of improving school nutrition in Maine and the United States was eloquently articulated by Peter Gore of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce in an Aug. 23 commentary in The Portland Press Herald. But this progress is being threatened by an effort led by our U.S. senators, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the school meals program, has proposed limiting starchy vegetables, including potatoes, to two servings per week for school lunches, which was advised by the Institute of Medicine.

This is just one small component of the many changes the USDA is trying to implement in schools. Other improvements include serving low-fat dairy products, more healthy fruits and vegetables, and foods lower in sodium and calories, which will together have a major impact on the health of children.

In contrast to these efforts to improve the nutritional quality of school lunches, Sens. Snowe and Collins are leading an attempt to keep french fries on the school lunch menu every day. While french fries served daily in school is in the interest of the Maine potato industry, it is definitely not in the best interest of the health and well-being of our children.

In a letter dated Aug. 3, Collins and Snowe, along with eight other lawmakers, urged a congressional subcommittee to prevent the USDA from being able to set these limits on potato products in schools. This is making policymakers nervous because of the power our two U.S. senators wield in Congress, and how far their efforts will set children’s health back in the United States and in Maine.

Potatoes in school lunches may seem an innocuous addition to the menu. However, studies show that french fries and other potato products are a real problem in children’s diets. The issue is that potatoes are most often served in schools as french fries, by no means a healthy food for children to consume on a daily basis at school or at home.

According to research, roughly 25 percent of children, or 7.5 million pupils, consume fries daily at school. When children are given the option of eating french fries versus healthy vegetables, less than 6 percent of children choose the healthier vegetables. Potatoes crowd out healthy alternatives, which means that kids are being deprived of important nutrients.

Snowe and Collins state in their letter that they fear that reducing childhood exposure to potatoes will result in decreased demand for these products into adulthood. From a public health perspective, a reduced demand for french fries is just what we are hoping for, and it would be a public health success.

Additionally, it’s important to point out that schools are intended to be environments where children learn skills we hope they continue to emanate as adults. Learning good nutritional skills and being exposed to nutritious foods at school may be the only opportunity many children have to develop healthful dietary practices. Healthy dietary practices are important to help children avoid expensive and debilitating diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

In order to allow the USDA to continue its efforts to improve school nutrition and the health of the children of Maine and the United States, I implore Collins and Snowe to side with children and not with the potato industry in this situation, and to support the USDA’s sensible school lunch proposal.

Do kids really need fries every day at school? The USDA’s proposed nutrition standards, which include two servings of fries a week in school lunches, are generous to the industry while safeguarding our children’s health.

 

- Special to The Press Herald