Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Senate Votes "No" On Restrictions For White Potatoes & Starchy Vegetables In School Meals

Amendment to change USDA's school nutrition rule passes by unanimous consent; lawmakers and National Potato Council celebrate "major victory"...
First Lady Michelle Obama
vocally championed the child nutrition legislation passed by Congress last year, which allows the Secretary of Agriculture for the first time in history to issue a rule creating uniform nutrition standards in schools. USDA's proposed rule allows a total of just one cup of white potatoes and corn, lima beans, and green peas to be served weekly in the National School Lunch Program, and bans them entirely from the National School Breakfast program.  It's an effort to make room on menus for vegetables that ostensibly contain more nutrients, such as sweet potatoes and kale. The rule got royally sauteed late on Tuesday, when the Senate passed an amendment to the FY 2012 agriculture appropriations bill that says schools can't restrict the number of weekly servings of white spuds and starchy veggies. Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo) and Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) authored the amendment, and the Senate passed it by unanimous consent. (Above: Mrs. Obama in her White House Kitchen Garden, where sweet potatoes are grown, but white potatoes are not)

USDA's rule has caused months of controversy. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have protested, and the National Potato Council created a major PR campaign, urging consumers to lobby Congress to ensure that US kids can eat French fries every day if they want to. USDA received about 130,000 comments on the rule during the public comment period, Press Secretary Courtney Rowe told Obama Foodorama.

After the vote, Collins hailed the Senate's thumbs-up as "a major victory," and declared herself "delighted" that her colleagues had supported the amendment.  Udall and the National Potato Council announced triumph.

“The USDA estimates that this rule could have cost as much as $6.8 billion over five years,” Collins said. “The lion’s share of these costs would be incurred by the state and local agencies.”

“I’m proud that Senator Collins and I were able to find a balance that ensures our kids are getting the proper nutrients in their school meals while still allowing schools the flexibility to serve affordable, healthy and local food,” Udall said.

Since the launch of the Let's Move! campaign, the White House and USDA have been encouraging families and kids to learn how to cook in an effort to improve nutrition and combat obesity. Udall adopted the "cooking is king rhetoric" as he celebrated.

“The lessons we should be teaching our kids is that it’s not about any one vegetable; it’s how you cook it,” Udall said.

The National Potato Council was "pleased to support Senators Collins and Udall," said John Keeling, executive vice president and CEO of the lobbying organization.

"We trust USDA will heed the significant concerns raised by schools, citizens and elected representatives alike," Keeling said.

The Amendment comes on the heels of the House-passed FY 2012 agriculture appropriations bill, which contains report language that says that USDA should go back to the drawing board and rewrite the nutrition rule from scratch. The House and Senate appropriations bills will have to be reconciled.

The White House has been silent throughout the months of the controversy.   Mrs. Obama, of course, has continued to emphasize the importance of the healthiest possible school meals, noting that many kids get up to half their daily calories in school. On Monday, the First Lady threw a White House party for about 1,000 school officials who are using best practices for food, doing things like planting vegetable gardens and incorporating salad bars. Mrs. Obama does not grow white potatoes in her Kitchen Garden, preferring sweet potatoes instead. But French fries, she has said publicly, are her favorite food.

USDA officials are still analyzing the 130,000 comments they received on the nutrition rule, spokesman Rowe said. It's unclear how many of the comments were from people brought in by the National Potato Council's campaign, Rowe noted, as well as by other campaigns run by organizations such as the School Nutrition Association, which also protested the rule and urged its 34,000 members to comment. A final version of the rule will be issued in December, and go into effect as the school year begins in Fall of 2012, Rowe said.

Lobbyists said that the final language in Collins’s amendment was the subject of negotiation among Collins, Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Herb Kohl (D-WI), and Agriculture Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Kevin Concannon, reports Jerry Hagstrom of the subscription-only The Hagstrom Report.

“This is a positive step forward, and I hope the USDA will now move forward quickly to implement the important child-nutrition legislation we passed last year," Udall said.

That legislation was also passed by unanimous consent.

*Photo by Eddie Gehman Kohan/Obama Foodorama