WASHINGTON – Doris Demers, the nutrition program director for York and Kittery schools, had a blunt response Wednesday when asked about proposed guidelines limiting servings of white potatoes as part of the federally funded school lunch program.

“It’s ridiculous,” Demers said, adding that three York and Kittery schools on Wednesday featured baked potato bars full of healthy topping choices such as chili, broccoli and beans.

Demers participated in an event at the National Press Club held by the National Potato Council. The council released a survey showing that of 245 school food service professionals surveyed, only 5 percent believe the new guidelines would improve the quality of children’s health.

Some health care and nutrition advocates say potatoes and other starchy vegetables contribute to obesity. They laud the proposed federal guidelines as sound science.

But the potato council, along with legislative allies like Republican U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, is trying to persuade the U.S. Department of Agriculture to alter the rules, which focus on limiting starchy vegetables while increasing green and orange vegetables. The guidelines take effect later this year.

Collins says that if the USDA doesn’t revise its guidelines — she wants them to focus on requiring healthier preparations of potatoes, meaning baked, roasted and boiled rather than fried — she will attempt to force a revision on the agency when the 2012 agriculture spending bill reaches the Senate floor this fall.

Collins, who attended Wednesday’s event, said that under the proposed guidelines a school that serves a medium baked potato on Monday could not serve an ear of fresh corn later in the week.

“I have been trying to convince USDA for months,” Collins told reporters after the event.

“I don’t like taking the legislative route, which would be a funding restriction until they revamp the rule. The overall goal of increasing fruits and vegetables is one that I wholeheartedly support. But this simply goes too far.”

Snowe did not attend the event, but released a statement saying the proposed guidelines are “problematic and misguided” and could result in students eating fewer, not more, vegetables.

Maine was the sixth-largest potato-producing state 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 has said.

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.

Jonathan Shenkin, a pediatric dentist in Augusta, supports the campaign to uphold the USDA standards. He says Maine politicians are putting agriculture and corporate interests ahead of what’s best for children.

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

[email protected]