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.

She added 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 while 60 percent or more think the rules would increase food costs, decrease participation in school lunch programs and leave more wasted food.

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 such as 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, before they 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 attended Wednesday’s event, saying that if the guidelines take effect as written, 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, reiterating her argument that potatoes meet the USDA’s own general nutrition guidelines if they are prepared correctly. “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 less, 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 issue of potato consumption and nutrition gained attention earlier this year when a Harvard study showed the potato to be a prime culprit in obesity. Even boiled potatoes contribute to weight gain, according to the study.

In proposing new guidelines for programs that 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 from the breakfast program.

Jonathan Shenkin, a pediatric dentist in 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 and ahead of the need to attack the nation’s childhood obesity problem.

Shenkin has said that Maine’s congressional delegation — Democratic Reps. Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree also oppose the guidelines — is ignoring scientific evidence that starchy vegetables leads to obesity and making “more of an economic decision.”

Jonathan Riskind — 791-6280

[email protected]

Twitter: MaineTodayDC


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