Following a proposed rule restricting starchy vegetables in schools, Sen. Mark Udall recently added an amendment to the not-yet-approved agriculture appropriations bill preventing the limitations, calling them inflexible.
The rule, suggested by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in January, would limit starchy vegetables like potatoes, peas, corn and lima beans to one cup per week on the lunch menu and completely eliminate potatoes from school breakfasts.
Udall, along with Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), was successful in adding the amendment to the bill last week, which may be voted on in the Senate next week.
"I think this is a triple win for Colorado: First, children get access to baked and mashed potatoes that are full of fiber and potassium. Second, schools get the flexibility to plan school lunches - especially with the budget cuts they all face - and third, we support Colorado jobs that produce homegrown food," Udall told reporters over the phone late last week.
Udall cited a number of school districts and educational groups throughout Colorado, which all contacted the senator to say the rule would have been inflexible and affect their costs. He also heard from potato farmers around the state opposing the limitations - both Colorado and Collins' home turf , Maine, are spud-growing states. But overall, it was the "overly restrictive" nature of the rule that guided his stance, Udall deputy communications director Jennifer Talhelm said.
"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. "As schools budget for food services, we can't hamstring their ability to create healthful meals for school kids using nutritious and popular vegetables. The lessons we should be teaching our kids is that it's not about any one vegetable; it's how you cook it."
The amendment also prevents the USDA from setting up a rule inconsistent with the recommendations of the U.S. dietary guidelines for Americans, Udall said. The guidelines are set up through the USDA and Department of Health and Human Services, and don't currently prescribe any limitations against servings of vegetables.
Summit Prevention Alliance community prevention coordinator Joanna Rybak doesn't think it's about eliminating the starches, but making sure they're used correctly.
"The last thing we want is a french fry to be counted as a vegetable," she said, adding that a locally grown potato turned into home fries and sprinkled with herbs is more nutritious than processed offerings.
Just last Friday, Rybak attended a full-day training on school wellness - the general consensus among attending nutritionists was that starches are fine, as long as they're prepared in a healthy manner.
Summit School District's director of food services Joel Hauswirth says the district already tries to include diversity in its menus, and that french fries aren't on the menu that often. On Breckenridge Elementary's October lunch menu, fries are only offered twice: once as oven baked and in another instance, as baked sweet potato fries. Mashed potatoes are only offered once, as is corn.
"I think that we can work within our community to decide the correct amount of starchy foods that should be served in our schools. I don't think that we need federal regulations for this issue in our community," board of education member and parent Brad Piehl wrote in an email.
"With starchy foods, the main problem would be with pastas, white bread and fried potatoes," Summit parent Kristin Dean said. "I don't mind a potato, as long as it's a baked potato. Just don't ruin it with a lot of cheese and sour cream. Try to keep it healthy."
Dean does see the attempt to provide healthier foods on Breckenridge Elementary's menu, but says overall, it's up to her as a parent to decide whether her child eats the school lunch.