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Tuesday November 01, 2011 | 03:09 PM

The potato’s place at the plate as part of the school lunch program is protected and trucks weighing up to 100,000 pounds would be allowed back on all Maine interstates under legislation approved today by the Senate.

Both measures, backed by the entire Maine congressional delegation, were previously included in the 2012 catch-all spending bill passed 69-30 today by the Senate, but final passage of the overall bill was delayed until the Senate returned from a week-long recess.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and other allies, including GOP Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine and Democratic Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado, won passage of legislation, as part of the agriculture portion of the bill, 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 aimed at limiting servings of starchy vegetables. Potato proponents say potatoes can be served in healthy ways and that the potato is a nutritious vegetable.

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.

The House version of the spending bill contains similar backing of the potato as part of the school lunch program, and will have to be reconciled as part of the final overall spending legislation.

Collins and Democratic Sen. Pat Leahy of Vermont co-authored the provision allowing trucks weighing up to 100,000 pounds to exit Maine's side roads and drive back on to all of the state's interstate highways, which also was included in the overall spending bill. The provision also permits the heavier trucks onto all of Vermont's interstates.

The truck weight measure has been long sought by the Maine congressional delegation, state officials and many local residents worried about big rigs banned from the highway rumbling through intersections and past homes, businesses and schools.

Currently, trucks weighing more than 80,000 pounds can use only the Maine Turnpike and must use side roads elsewhere around the state.

The truck weight provision is not in the House version of the spending bill, so proponents of the exemptions for Maine and Vermont still need to win inclusion of the measure as part of the final House-Senate version of the legislation.

Collins will be part of the House-Senate conference committee hashing out differences on transportation and agriculture spending issues, so she will have a seat at the table as the fate of the truck weight and potato provisions are decided in the final House-Senate spending measure.

Reps. Chellie Pingree, D-1st, and Mike Michaud, D-2nd, back both proposals, as well.

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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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