Can a French Fry Nation Embrace a Rainbow of Vegetables?

Can a French Fry Nation Embrace a Rainbow of Vegetables?

By Chef Ann Cooper & Chef Beth Collins

Walk into any typical public school cafeteria these days and you will see one staple across the board: French Fries. According to the USDA’s School Nutrition Standards, vegetables must be served every day and French fries are the most often served vegetable in schools. Easy to make, portable for on-the-run students, and ubiquitous, French fries sell. But as we all know, counting French fries as a vegetable on the school lunch menu is a bit of a travesty. In this day and age when childhood diabetes and obesity are rampant why are other fresh, colorful and delicious vegetables not required more often in school meals?

In Fall of 2011, potatoes and the proposed meal patterns for school breakfast and lunch made headlines across the nation.

In August Senator Udall and Susan Collins (R-ME) sent a letter to the Senate agricultural appropriators urging them to add language to the FY2012 spending bill that states;

None of the funds provided by this Act shall be available to implement new nutritional standards in the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs that would unnecessarily discriminate against certain vegetables, including white potatoes, corn, lima beans and green peas.

Until January of 2011 when the USDA released the proposed meal standards a potato serving could “count” as a vegetable in a reimbursable school meal every day of the week.  In the proposed pattern starchy vegetables are limited not because they can’t be healthful or are less expensive, but the Institute of Medicine that studied the NSLP programs extensively state the reason for the limitation of starchy vegetables to once a week is to “encourage students to try new vegetables in place of the familiar starchy ones.”  Does this mean we need to worry about the future of French fries?

I’m sure Senator Udall also has the children of the United States on his mind with his opposition to the USDA’s proposed rule.  But will the potato farmers of Colorado (Udall’s home state) really go out of business if the kids in Colorado and elsewhere eat a variety of vegetables?  Colorado is the nation’s fourth leading producer of white potatoes.  Potatoes have been a cornerstone of school meals for decades and potato growers and processors  have invested heavily to ensure potatoes maintain their heralded place as the number one vegetable consumed in school meals – everything from tator-tots and French fries to potato pearls for instant mashed are readily available to school food authorities (SFAs) across the nation.  It’s time to make a change.

Is the potato being discriminated against or have the rest of the “specialty crops” been ignored so consistently and for so long with the rise of our fast food nation that most kids don’t know the virtues and deliciousness of broccoli, zucchini or butternut squash, all of which also grow in Colorado?

Running a school food service program in Colorado serving 1.6 million meals annually, we find a place for potatoes at our table.  The difference being that unlike many districts where the potato arrives frozen as ready-to-bake or ready-to-fry, they arrive whole and raw from Colorado farmers. Boulder Valley School District cooked 26,000 pounds of potatoes from scratch last year.  Potatoes made up 20% of our fresh vegetable purchases totaling over 125,000 pounds..  The kids love our potatoes; mashed, roasted, gracing our pot pie or the salad bar.  Here in Boulder we truly believe that our children cannot learn to love the rainbow of all vegetables unless we give them the opportunity.  Clearly, our purchase history reflects the ability to both educate and feed.

We believe Senator Udall’s and others’ opposition to the change in starchy vegetable servings is ill-served.  As a nation we need to take responsibility for the current state of our children’s health.  If we open the lunch tray to more required choices, our kids will have a better chance to be healthy adults. We respect the concern of our colleagues in the School Nutrition Association  that the proposed rules may enact hardship on the SFAs to comply.  We should be concerned about the cost of meals and the SFAs’ ability to procure and serve meals that our children will eagerly accept.  But instead of opposing the new meal pattern, perhaps Senator Udall and the rest of nation will ask for more than 6 cents a meal in the reimbursement rate to give SFAs realistic economic support to comply with the new meal patterns.  School districts will require equipment, training and educational resources to assure success in school cafeterias across the nation, and a future of healthier Americans.

Chef Ann Cooper

Chef Ann Cooper is a celebrated author, chef, educator, and enduring advocate for better food for all children. In a nation where children are born with shorter estimated life expectancy than their parents because of diet-related illness, Ann is a relentless voice of reform by focusing on the links between food, family, farming and children’s health and wellness.

Note: This Perspectives Blog post is written by a guest blogger of The opinions expressed on this post do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Dr. Greene or, and as such we are not responsible for the accuracy of the information supplied. View the license for this post.

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