WASHINGTON — Doris Demers, the nutrition program director for York and Kittery schools, had a blunt response today when asked about proposed federal guidelines limiting white potato servings as part of the federally funded school lunch program.

“It’s ridiculous,” Demers said, adding that three York and Kittery schools today featured baked potato bars full of healthy topping choices such as chili, broccoli and beans.

Demers participated in an event at the National Press Club in Washington held by the National Potato Council.

The council released a survey contending that of 245 school food service professionals surveyed, only 5 percent believe the new guidelines will improve the quality of children’s health while 60 percent or more think the rules would increase food costs, lead to decreased student participation in school lunch programs and result in more wasted food.

That’s not the position held by a number of national and Maine health care and nutrition advocates, who say potatoes and other starchy vegetables contribute to obesity and laud as sound science the proposed federal guidelines limiting starchy vegetables while increasing green and orange vegetables.

But the potato council, along with legislative allies like GOP Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine and Democratic Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado, is trying to persuade – or potentially force, through legislation – the U.S. Department of Agriculture to alter the rules before they go into effect later this year.

Collins, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, says that if the USDA doesn’t revise its guidelines – she wants them to focus on requiring healthier preparations of potatoes, meaning baked, roasted and boiled rather than fried – she will attempt to force a revision on the agency when the 2012 agriculture spending bill reaches the Senate floor this fall.

Collins attended today’s potato council event, saying that if the guidelines go into effect as written it would mean that a school that serves a medium baked potato on Monday could not serve an ear of freshly grown corn later in the week. Collins also noted that Demers has told her that York schools serve french fries just twice a month, but that they are baked french fries one day and sweet potato fries the other day.

“I have been trying to convince USDA for months,” Collins told reporters after the event, reiterating her oft-made argument that potatoes meet USDA’s own general nutrition guidelines if they are prepared correctly. “I don’t like taking the legislative route, which would be a funding restriction until they revamp the rule. The overall goal of increasing fruits and vegetables is one that I wholeheartedly support. But this simply goes too far.”

Snowe did not attend the event, but released a statement charging that the proposed guidelines are “problematic and misguided” and could result in students eating fewer, not more, vegetables if potatoes are taken away.

The growing of white potatoes is big business in Maine, the sixth-largest potato-producing state in the nation in 2010, according to the Maine Potato Board in Presque Isle. Maine farmers grow about 55,000 acres of white potatoes, selling $140 million worth in 2009, the potato board has said.

U.S. Department of Agriculture officials say they are not bashing potatoes, but note that after studying the issue of improving the nutrition of food for federal nutrition assistance programs, the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine recommended a focus on green, leafy vegetables, orange vegetables and whole grains.

The issue of potato consumption and nutrition gained attention earlier this year when a Harvard study found the potato to be a prime obesity culprit. French fries and potato chips were the worst uses of the potato, but even boiled potatoes contributed to weight gain, according to the study.

In proposing new food guidelines for those programs, which offer free and reduced-price meals to low-income children, the USDA wants to limit to one cup a week the amount of starchy vegetables – potatoes, peas and corn – that can be served as part of the school lunch program. It would ban the potato completely from the breakfast program.

The Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest responded to today’s potato council event by saying in a release that the USDA has proposed “common-sense standards – a giant step toward curbing our nation’s growing child obesity crisis. Unfortunately, some in Congress are now trying to block USDA’s efforts in order to benefit potato lobbyists who want to keep other vegetables out of school lunches at the expense of our kids.”

In Maine, pediatric dentist Jonathan Shenkin of Augusta has picked up the campaign to uphold the USDA school lunch standards that limit potatoes in any form. Shenkin says Maine politicians are putting agriculture and corporate interests ahead of what’s best for the children eating school lunches and ahead of the need to attack the nation’s childhood obesity problem.

Shenkin has said that the Maine congressional delegation – Democratic Reps. Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree also oppose the guidelines – are ignoring scientific evidence that starchy vegetable consumption leads to obesity and making “more of an economic decision.”

The American Heart Association joined the fight today as well, issuing a press release at the potato council event that said the association urges “the USDA to finalize the nutrition standards as soon as possible and uphold the proposed limit on starchy vegetables.”

The association, however, also urged the federal agency to clarify its rules to ensure that the weekly serving limits do not apply to potatoes and other starchy vegetables used in soups and similar dishes as long as requirements for serving legumes, dark green and orange vegetables are met.

“If the USDA’s proposed standards are implemented, they have the potential to improve the health and well-being of our children,” the heart association said.

MaineToday Media Washington Bureau Chief Jonathan Riskind can be contacted at 791-6280 or at: [email protected] Twitter: Twitter.com/MaineTodayDC.