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Wednesday September 07, 2011 | 08:22 AM

When the Senate Appropriations Committee takes up the 2012 agriculture spending bill this afternoon, Sen. Susan Collins likely will hold off launching another salvo in the white potato wars.

But that doesn’t mean that Collins, a member of the appropriations committee, and others in a bipartisan coalition of senators opposed to federal guidelines limiting white potato servings as part of the federally funded school lunch program, have given up the fight. (Updated as of 6 p.m.: Collins spoke about the issue in the committee meeting, but confirmed she will wait until the bill reaches the Senate floor to try to alter the guidelines.)

It just means that white potato proponents have decided to wage the final battle on the Senate floor, figuring that Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, a senior member of appropriation agriculture subcommittee, and other supporters of the new standards on the committee are too tough to beat when the committee votes on the overall agriculture spending bill.

This is a fight that has gained Collins and other potato proponents plaudits from farmers, but criticism from a number of national and Maine health care and nutrition experts.

Collins and her GOP Senate colleague from Maine, Olympia Snowe, and Democratic Reps. Chellie Pingree of the 1st district and Mike Michaud of the 2nd district all are potato backers – along with other potato state lawmakers such as Sen. Mark Udall, D-Col., Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, and GOP Sen. Michael Crapo of Idaho. The House version of the 2012 agriculture spending bill already contains language aiming to stop restrictions on use of the white potato in school lunches and breakfasts.

They say that potatoes contain many nutrients, and the problem is in their preparation: schools should just stop serving them in their fried version.

That has earned them high praise from farmers, in a legislative battle that has been going on for months and began with pro-potato lawmakers unsuccessfully trying to overcome dropping the white potato from the federal voucher package meant to supplement the food supplies of low-income mothers.  

The growing of white potatoes is big business in Maine, the sixth-largest potato-producing state in the nation in 2010, Tim Hobbs, director of development and grower relations for the Maine Potato Board, based in Presque Isle. Maine farmers grow about 55,000 acres of white potatoes, selling $140 million worth in 2009, he said earlier this year.

U.S. Department of Agriculture Department officials say they are not bashing potatoes. But in 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.

And there is a matter of that Harvard study that came out earlier this year that found the potato to be a prime obesity culprit. Sure, French fries and potato chips were the worst uses of the potato, but even boiled potatoes, which after all are a starchy vegetable, 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 school lunch program serves about 32 million children each day and spends about $9.8 billion a year to do so. The breakfast program serves about 12 million children daily at a cost of about $3.1 billion.

Nationally, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, charges that “the French fry industry and other food interests are working to get Congress to stop USDA from finalizing these sensible school nutrition standards,” and notes the House bill pressures the USDA to drop the new standards. “If industry is successful in convincing the Senate to do the same, the goal of seeing healthy school lunches in cafeterias across the country will be in serious jeopardy. “

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.

“The Institute of Medicine recommended to USDA very clearly the need to limit starchy vegetable consumption because it leads to obesity,” said Shenkin, who also has a public health degree, in a phone interview. “Unfortunately, our congressional delegation is not relying on the experts. It is becoming more of an economic decision.”

Shenkin notes that Harkin, despite hailing from a corn growing state (another starchy vegetable limited by the new guidelines), still supports the standards. (Update as of 11:30 a.m.: Collins' office says that while Iowa does produce a lot of corn, most of it used not for the food market but for livestock feed, ethanol or corn syrup sweetener.)

The Maine Medical Association does not have a formal position on how many servings of potatoes per week is appropriate or how the food should be prepared, said Jessa Barnard, the association’s director of public health policy.

“But we do believe nutrition standards should be evidence based,” Barnard said. “The current USDA proposal was based on recommendations by the Institute of Medicine and appears to be based in evidence and so we do support the current proposal. We certainly understand the imp of agriculture and the agriculture economy in Maine. The impact of a poor economy on a child’s health is pretty critical as well. We just hope supporting agriculture won’t be at the expense of good nutrition standards.”

But Collins isn’t backing off her stance. She continues to say that the white potato, prepared properly, is a healthful food, and she still intends to try to alter the USDA standards as they apply to the potato – if not this afternoon in committee when the agriculture spending bill reaches the floor.

“The problem is that the potato has been unfairly singled out,” said Collins in an interview on Tuesday, who says it has more nutrients than iceberg lettuce, which isn’t limited by the new standards. “What would be legitimate would be for them to encourage healthy preparation of potatoes. I don’t understand why the department has singled out the white potato when it can be healthily prepared, it’s nutritious and it’s affordable and that’s an important part too.”

(Updated as of 10:15 a.m.: Snowe says she also will be among the lawmakers trying when the agriculture spending bill reaches the Senate floor to alter the USDA rule limiting potato consumption.

“USDA’s proposed rule limiting potato consumption to just one serving per week in our schools is based on flawed nutritional and economic science,” Snowe said today via email.”)

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Kevin Miller is Washington bureau chief for the Portland Press Herald and MaineToday Media. He has worked as a journalist in Maine for 6 ½ years, covering the environment, politics and the State House. Before arriving in Maine, he wrote about politics, government and education for newspapers in Virginia and Maryland.
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