The XX Factor

Protecting the Potato

Are kids’ school lunches too potato-heavy?

Photograph by Francois Nascimbeni/AFP/Getty Images.

The Senate continued accomplishing important work Tuesday. In a moment that defines the regard with which most citizens hold the government body and surely solidified our nationwide impression regarding its ability to bring about the kind of change this country needs, it passed an amendment to the 2012 spending bill for the Agriculture Department prohibiting that department from “setting any limits on the serving of vegetables in school meal programs.”

That sounds good, right? Who would be in favor of limiting the number of vegetables served in school meals? Aren’t vegetables what we want in school meals?

They are—until you remember that many school lunch programs define “vegetable” pretty broadly, and it’s that broad definition that the Senate set out to protect. The Obama administration has, in fact, proposed a rule limiting a particular type of vegetable to a once-weekly serving, and that vegetable is: tater tots.

In order to qualify for federal school meal funding (which subsidizes not just school lunches for low income students but all school meals), schools have to meet health guidelines set by the Department of Agriculture, which plans to revise those guidelines for the 2012-13 school year. The department has proposed a rule limiting the serving of starchy vegetables like potatos, corn, green peas, and lima beans to once a week. Senators from potato-producing states (specifically Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Mark Udall, D-Colo.) objected and the amendment prohibiting the limit—that supremely healthy sounding amendment—passed unanimously, amidst much rhetoric regarding the nutritional profile of the potato. “The proposed rule would prevent schools from serving an ear of fresh corn one day and a baked potato another day of the same week,” Ms. Collins said, “an utterly absurd result.”

That does sound absurd, but unfortunately what’s absurd is assuming that the schools are serving either. I went to the best source I could find to look at what a large public school district is really serving its students: Sarah Wu’s Fed Up With Lunch blog. Wu, a speech therapist in the Chicago public schools, ate and photographed her school lunch every day for a total of 162 lunches. I flipped quickly through the photographs and counted potatoes 27 times. Twice they were served as french fries, once mashed, 21 times as tater tots and three times as potato wedges with the skin on. I didn’t count corn and peas, but I can promise you that “ear of fresh corn” Collins cited was never on the menu.

Ultimately, this amendment is blow-hard legislation that will please the potato lobby with, I suspect, little impact on school meals. Pressure to change those is coming from both the top, at the Department of Agriculture, and the bottom, with blogs and parent activism. Meanwhile, 27 out of 162 actually isn’t a potato a week, and changing the way the potatoes are served is probably more important than limiting their servings. The power of the tater tot is already waning. But what the amendment does do is to remind us of how, at a moment when the economic situation has become so desperate that there are actually people protesting in the streets, our elected officials are spending their time. Bipartisan unity in accomplishing nothing at all.