WASHINGTON – The Senate may vote this week on legislation to stop the U.S. Department of Agriculture from limiting how many potatoes are served in the federal school lunch program.

Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Democratic Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado are pushing an amendment to the 2012 agriculture spending bill to prohibit the Agriculture Department from using its funding to impose “maximum limits on the frequency of serving fruits and vegetables in school lunch programs.”

Collins, who picked potatoes as a youth in Aroostook County, says the potato is a nutritious vegetable that is healthy as long as it is served baked or boiled, not as french fries.

She said this month that she prefers not to threaten the USDA with a funding cut over the issue. But Collins has been arguing for months that potatoes meet the USDA’s own nutrition guidelines if prepared correctly, and she’ll seek a vote on her amendment unless the department agrees to make changes to the rule.

In proposing new guidelines for programs that 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. It would ban potatoes from the breakfast program.

Collins said Monday in a Senate floor speech that she is “concerned that the proposed rule would impose significant costs on schools and would limit the flexibility that they need to serve nutritious, affordable meals to their students.”

Mainers lined up Monday on both sides.

A group of school nutrition directors from Maine 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. Hundreds of schools from other states also were cited.

Taking potatoes out of school lunches wasn’t necessary for the directors to come up with more nutritious meals, several said outside the White House.

“If they want to say no french fries, then say no french fries,” said Judy Campbell, nutrition director for Scarborough schools. “Potatoes can be used in many ways, all the time.”

But Jonathan Shenkin, a pediatric dentist in Augusta, continued Monday with his campaign to uphold the USDA standards that limit potatoes in any form. Shenkin has said that Maine’s congressional delegation — GOP Sen. Olympia Snowe and Democratic Reps. Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree also oppose the guidelines — is ignoring scientific evidence that starchy vegetables lead to obesity and is making “more of an economic decision.” He wrote an op-ed column published online Monday in The Hill, a Capitol Hill paper, criticizing Collins for her stance.

Collins’ amendment goes further than one in the House version of the agriculture spending bill, which merely expresses concern about the proposed limit on potatoes. Co-sponsors of the Collins-Udall amendment include Snowe, Republican Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Mike Johanns of Nebraska, and Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon.

White potatoes are big business in Maine, which was sixth in potato production nationally in 2010, according to the Maine Potato Board. Maine farmers grow about 55,000 acres of white potatoes, selling $140 million worth in 2009, the board said.

The issue of potato consumption and nutrition drew attention earlier this year when a Harvard study showed the potato to be a prime culprit in obesity. French fries and potato chips are the worst uses of the potato, but even boiled potatoes contribute to weight gain, the study said.

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

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