USDA’s War on Potatoes

The Wall Street Journal reports today that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is proposing to “eliminate the ‘white potato’ — defined as any variety but the sweet potato — from federally subsidized school breakfasts and to limit them sharply at lunch.” And my friends Henry Miller and Bruce Chassy covered the topic in a recent piece at NRO. Why? It’s part of an on-going effort to force schools to serve more “nutrient-rich” vegetables and get rid of French fries and Tater Tots. Last year, USDA also removed white potatoes from a list of permissible food items that can be purchased with vouchers under the Department’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), a program “designed to meet the special nutritional needs of low-income pregnant, breastfeeding, non-breastfeeding postpartum women, infants and children up to five years of age who are at nutritional risk.”

Naturally, eating too many fries or baked potatoes smothered in butter and sour cream can easily lard a kid’s diet with way too much saturated fat. But the actual potato part of the French fry or baked potato is hugely nutritious food, jam packed with important dietary nutrients. They’re a very good source of vitamin C, potassium, and fiber, as well as the B vitamins Thiamin, Naicin, Roboflavin, Folate, and B6. And, unlike many other vegetables, potatoes contain the full complement of eight essential amino acids (though in that regard, most beans are far better than potatoes). Add a little milk (with vitamins D, A, and B12, plus calcium) to make mashed potatoes, and you’ve got yourself a damn fine meal that most kids love, and one that’s very nearly nutritionally complete.

Perhaps just as important, potatoes are relatively cheap, which makes them an ideal source of nutrients and calories for low-income families and school cafeterias. And, to repeat an important point, kids generally like eating potatoes. As the father of a six-year-old boy who is generally not a finicky eater, I know how difficult it is to get kids to eat their vegetables. I can usually find some combination of vegetables that my kid will eat at a given meal. But my job would be far more difficult without the plain old white potato in all its glory. Forcing school cafeterias to give up potatoes will make them substitute more expensive and less well-liked alternatives — many of which are as likely to end up in the trash can as they are in kids’ bellies.

I’ve got no problem with efforts to encourage kids to eat better — particularly to cut back on empty calories and saturated fats. But with its war on potatoes, the USDA is throwing the baby out with the bath water.