October 19, 2011

Maine potato growers happy about Senate vote

David Sharp, The Associated Press

PORTLAND — After a rain-soaked summer reduced the state's potato harvest, Maine's potato growers finally have something to cheer about: The Senate voted to block an Obama administration proposal to drastically reduce the amount of potatoes in school lunches across the country.

"Common sense does prevail sometimes," said Donald Flannery, executive director of the Maine Potato Board, which opposed the plan to put limits on spuds.

U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines would have eliminated potatoes altogether from school breakfasts and drastically reduce the amount of potatoes served in lunches.

But the proposal, lauded by many nutritionists who believe kids eat too many french fries and need diversity in their diets, stumbled in Congress.

Following a bipartisan agreement on the issue, the Senate accepted an amendment by Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine that blocks the USDA from putting any limits on serving potatoes or other vegetables in school lunches. Her amendment was co-sponsored by Democratic Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado. The House passed a similar bill earlier this year.

Back in Maine, growers have just finished the fall potato harvest.

"I can't see anything better and more nutritious and cheap than potatoes," said Bill Doyen, part of the family that runs Willard C. Doyen and Sons in Mapleton, who recalls eating potatoes every day for lunch as a boy in northern Maine.

Doyen acknowledged criticism of greasy french fries as being unhealthy but says that's no reason to take away potatoes. "They can stop serving french fries, but they don't have to take away potatoes," Doyen said. "Baked or mashed is probably the most nutritious way to serve them."

Craig Bouchard, whose family runs the 400-acre Bouchard Farm in Caribou, which is Collins' home town, said the farmers appreciate Collins for going to bat for them.

"I appreciate her fighting for 'the county,'" he said, referring to Aroostook County, a vast and sparsely populated region that's home to the bulk of Maine's potato farms.

Collins, who picked potatoes as a girl, noted that the USDA proposal carried a hefty price tag of nearly $7 billion and would've place difficult limits on school lunch administrators. "The lion's share of these costs would be incurred by the state and local agencies," Collins said.

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