The Root of All Evil? White Potatoes Dropped From School Lunch Programs


Photo by Christian Guthier via Flickr.com.
Guest bloggers Andrea Donsky and Randy Boyer are co-founders of NaturallySavvy.com.
Potatoes are a staple food for some, but federal nutrition programs are looking at changing that. The USDA has blocked participants in the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, a federal nutrition initiative that provides money to families for food and also funds school lunch programs, from using WIC funding to purchase white potatoes.The recommendation to ban or limit the use of white potatoes in WIC-funded school lunch programs and prevent individuals from purchasing potatoes with WIC funds came from a report by the Institute of Medicine, which is a branch of the National Academy of Sciences.

It's not a bad recommendation when you consider that the impetus is to try to boost the overall servings of uber healthy vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. But it does have its flaws, and it gives potatoes an unnecessary bad rap.

Ban Won't Stop People From Eating Potatoes
People buy potatoes because they're a relatively cheap vegetable. Take that away from a family that is struggling financially, and they can't provide as much food for their family with the same amount of money. Unless the federal government is planning on coughing up the extra money for families and schools to invest in healthier foods, this is not going to work--and that extra funding is highly unlikely given the record debt the government is dealing with.

What's more, potatoes are, well, small potatoes in the unhealthy diet issue when you consider all the processed, chemical-laden "foods" that many people are eating on a regular basis.

While it's true WIC only covers the cost of specific foods, such as cereal, infant formula and foods, dairy, tofu, legumes, eggs, juice, fruits and vegetables, juice, and whole wheat/grain breads, WIC participants can still purchase unhealthy foods with the money they earn from work or other benefit programs. (As an aside, peanut butter is also on WIC's acceptable foods list, and while it is high in protein, many brands contain trans fats, which are universally accepted as the most harmful fat--so much so that some doctors say no amount of trans fat is safe for us to eat.)

The issue of accessibility to healthy foods and healthy food choices are major issues in the fight against obesity, but over and above those very complex issues, we're failing to consider how we classify and prepare the potatoes served in schools.

Potatoes Should Be Considered a Starch
Potatoes are a vegetable, but they're mostly starch, meaning they're high in carbohydrates, which isn't great if we are eating too many of them.

That being said, potatoes contain a lot of potassium (one serving has more than the potassium in a banana), more than a third of the daily requirements for vitamin C, and they're a good source of dietary fiber, vitamin B6, copper, and manganese. They aren't comparable to broccoli, spinach and other greens, carrots, or other colorful vegetables or fruits--but there's no reason we need to think of them as a taboo food choice.

Rather than treating potatoes as one serving of "vegetable," schools should be considering one serving of potato on par with breads, pasta or other grains. Children should be offered a choice of potato, bread, pasta, or another grain/starch food, as well as their choice of healthy vegetables and fruits. Reclassifying starchy potatoes to define them as a starch on par with grains would go a long way to helping boost those healthier vegetables because it would not have an impact on veggie intake. Plus, white potatoes are lower on the Glycemic Index than white bread or white rice.

Tater Tots and French Fries Should Not Be Considered a Vegetable
Like any food, the way potatoes are prepared is another major factor in whether or not they are healthy. Consider what one second-grade student at a school in Washington state told the Associated Press when he heard that they might limit or cut out potatoes at lunch:

That would be bad. That would be so not cool. I love tater tots.

That, right there, is the problem. Lunch programs serving Tater Tots (and French fries) as a serving of potato. No wonder there's an obesity epidemic among children! We're willingly serving them processed, fried potatoes as if they are a healthy vegetable, and then when we realize the error of our ways, we blame it on the whole food rather than on the preparation that makes it so very unhealthy.

Why Aren't Organic Veggies and Fruits Mandatory?
While we're on the subject of healthy fruits and vegetables, the USDA might consider mandating that schools serve organic varieties (especially those from the Dirty Dozen list).

Not only would this protect young children from chemical pesticide, herbicide, and insecticide residues that can have serious long-term health consequences for growing bodies, it would also protect farmers and the planet. Furthermore, serving organics would have the side benefit of reducing exposure to genetically modified foods.

At Naturally Savvy, we're all for a well-balanced diet loaded with fresh fruits and vegetables, but that could include some potato--perhaps not as much as some people are eating, but some. We're not saying the USDA is wrong to consider limiting potato intake, but we are worried that they're not tackling the right issues.

Schools need to start taking a close look at the unhealthy ways they prepare foods--from frying foods to adding unnecessary amounts of sugar--because cutting out specific whole foods won't fix those problems. When we start feeding children foods that are prepared with their health in mind, kids will slowly but surely come to realize that, while the taste may be different, the food is still good. And they'll be healthier for it too.

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Tags: Agriculture | Diet | Fruits & Vegetables | United States

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