WASHINGTON — Sen. Susan Collins declared victory today in the potato wars.

Collins, R-Maine, won passage of legislation that allows schools in Maine and nationwide to continue serving potatoes as part of federal school lunches and breakfasts unfettered by U.S. Department of Agriculture restrictions.

The amendment, added to the 2012 agriculture spending bill, says that the department can’t use its funds to set “maximum limits on the frequency of serving vegetables in school meal programs.”

The amendment co-authored by Collins and Democratic Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado, and backed by a bipartisan group of senators, including Sens. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, was included by unanimous consent in the agriculture spending bill after it won the support of Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl of Wisconsin and GOP Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, the top members of the Senate Appropriation Committee’s agriculture subcommittee. Collins is a member of the Appropriations Committee, as well.

The overall spending bill is expected to be approved later this week by the Senate, but would have to be reconciled later with a different House version that does not include Collins’ amendment.

“This amendment means USDA cannot proceed with a rule that would impose unnecessary and expensive new requirements affecting the servings of white potatoes, corn, green peas and lima beans,” Collins said. “This amendment is going to make a real difference to school districts across the country, without in any way impairing the nutritious meals that we want all of our school children to receive.”

Collins, whose potato roots stretch back to picking them as a youth in the potato country of Aroostook County, says the potato is a nutritious vegetable that is healthy as long as it served in its baked or boiled or stewed versions, not turned into French fries. She stressed Tuesday that her amendment preserves a school’s option for how many servings of potatoes to serve, but does not dictate that they must serve more servings.

Kevin Concannon, USDA undersecretary for food, nutrition, and consumer services, said via email that the proposed rule, which affects an array of school nutrition issues, would “improve the health and nutrition of our children and is based on sound science recommended by the Institute of Medicine. We will work with Congress to ensure that the intent of this rule is not undermined and that these historic improvements are allowed to move forward so that millions of kids across the nation will receive healthier meals,” added Concannon, a Maine native and former director of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

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, based in Presque Isle. Maine farmers grow about 55,000 acres of white potatoes, selling $140 million worth in 2009, the Maine Potato Board has said.

Mainers had lined up on both sides of the potato battle line.

A group of Maine school nutrition directors, along with hundreds of other school officials from around the country, attended a White House event featuring First Lady Michelle Obama because 33 Maine schools won citations for serving healthy meals as part of the administration’s HealthierUS School Challenge initiative. Taking potatoes prepared in a healthy way off the school lunch plate wasn’t necessary to come up with more nutritious meals overall, several said in an interview outside the White House.

But Jonathan Shenkin, a pediatric dentist in Augusta, 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 are making “more of an economic decision.”

Shenkin said today that, “This is a victory for Senator Collins at the cost of children’s health.”

U.S. Department of Agriculture Department officials have said they were 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.

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