Udall, Franken gang up to keep potatoes in school lunches

Today, Senator Mark Udall’s amendment to prevent limits on the amount of starchy vegetables that schools can serve passed the Senate as part of a larger bill.

In the run-up to the Senate vote that likely denied the USDA the right to limit potatoes in school lunches, U.S. Sen. Al Franken and eight other Democratic senators from potato-growing regions pushed hard on the federal agency.

In a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack (below), the eight senators proposed that potatoes are healthier if topped with broccoli. The letter recommends that the USDA consider food preparation when compiling guidelines.

A Senate amendment to take away the agency’s ability to limit potatoes passed on Oct. 18, and will likely be merged with a House version.

The proposed rule limited kids’ lunches to one cup of starchy vegetables every week, which includes white potatoes, corn, lima beans and peas. The rule would also have removed starchy vegetables from breakfasts, limit sodium intake and mandate more non-starchy vegetables during lunches, among other nutritional improvements.

Franken said the rule change could “disproportionately affect” agricultural producers “without necessarily improving student nutrition,” according to a post Monday on his Senate site.

“While I applaud the USDA’s efforts to improve vegetable variety in our nation’s schools, it’s important that we consider the possible consequences of this rule on our farmers, and its disproportionate effect on Minnesota,” Franken said in the statement. “That’s why I urged the USDA to give our children the nutritious foods they need without making dramatic cuts to the dietary staples provided by Minnesota’s agricultural producers.”

The letter to Vilsack proposed that potatoes can be healthier if topped with broccoli. The letter recommends that the USDA consider food preparation when compiling guidelines.

The cost of the entire proposed rules, which covers many areas of nutrition, could have reached an addition $6.8 billion over five years, according to the USDA report. The revisions are designed to combat the childhood obesity epidemic and prevent related health problems.

Groups like the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine have advocated for healthier school lunches. Other advocates, like Chef Ann Cooper of the Food Family Farming Foundation, have said opposing the new limits on starchy vegetables doesn’t serve the best interest of children’s nutrition.

The legislation – a package of bills that will fund several federal agencies – also included a measure to boost Colorado’s aerospace economy by supporting space programs like the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), the Orion multipurpose crew vehicle, and commercial crew and cargo space launch services, which create thousands of good jobs in Colorado. The package of bills now must be worked out with the U.S. House of Representatives.

“I was proud to fight for Coloradans in this bill,” Udall said in a prepared statement. We’re now one step closer to ensuring a balance between giving our kids proper nutrients and enabling schools to afford to prepare healthy meals from local food sources,” Udall said. “Colorado’s aerospace companies will also benefit from continued support for programs dedicated to building a successor to the space shuttle and changing the way we access low-Earth orbit and deep space. I urge the House to join us in supporting innovative new technologies that mean skilled jobs for Coloradans. Not only will the data from JPSS save lives and property and lead to a better understanding of our world, the satellites are largely built right here in Colorado, providing good-paying jobs for hundreds of Coloradans.”

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Scot Kersgaard contributed to this story.

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