Potato growers are fighting back against efforts to ban or limit potatoes in federal child nutrition programs, arguing the tuber is loaded with potassium and vitamin C and shouldn't be considered junk food.
One Washington man is so exasperated by the proposals that he's in the midst of a 60-day, all potato diet to demonstrate that potatoes are nutritious.
"We're just really concerned that this is a misconception to the public that potatoes aren't healthy," said Chris Voigt, head of the Washington Potato Commission. "The potato isn't the scourge of the earth. It's nutrition."
Healthy food advocates said they're not anti-potato, but they think children need a greater variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains to fight a tripling of child obesity rates in the past 30 years.
"The potato is the most common vegetable," said Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association. "My impression is that the goal is to increase the amounts of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. I don't believe anyone is specifically attacking the potato."
With that in mind, the Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences, recommended that the U.S. Department of Agriculture stop participants of the federal Women, Infants and Children program, known as WIC, from buying potatoes with federal dollars. The institute also called for the USDA-backed school lunch program to limit use of potatoes.
Under an interim rule, the USDA agreed to bar WIC participants from buying potatoes with their federal dollars. Potatoes are the only vegetable not allowed. Next year, the agency will roll out a final rule on the WIC program, which last year served 9.3 million children and pregnant and breast-feeding women considered at risk for malnutrition.
The WIC program is a supplemental food program, and the determination was made that consumption of white potatoes was already adequate, said Christine Stencel, spokeswoman for the Institute of Medicine.
"The recommendation was made to encourage consumption of other fruits and vegetables," she said.
Jean Daniel, spokeswoman for USDA's Food and Nutrition Service, said the WIC program was updated for the first time in 30 years after a study showed more consumption of leafy greens and other veggies was needed.
The USDA is expected to release changes to the federal school lunch program by the end of the year. The program subsidizes lunch and breakfast for nearly 32 million needy kids in most public schools and many private ones, and those schools must follow guidelines on what they serve.
Whatever the USDA decides, potatoes won't disappear from school lunches, although they might become less common, Daniel said,
"It's an opportunity to make healthy eating choices as varied as possible, and it's a learning lesson for children about how to put a plate together that's healthy and balanced," she said.
At Naches Valley Primary School, which sits in the agricultural hub of central Washington, some 7-year-old students weren't so sure.
"No potatoes?" second-grader Madison Nunley asked incredulously.
"That would be bad." Chimed in schoolmate Leah Marko, "That would be so not cool. I love tater tots."
The Institute of Medicine made its school lunch recommendation late last year after determining that standards for the federal lunch program don't match up with the government's own dietary guidelines, calling for lots of fresh fruits and veggies and more whole grains.
This hardly marks the first time that potato growers have felt targeted. Low-carb diets, such as Atkins and South Beach, prompted the U.S. Potato Board to allocate $4.4 million for an 18-month public relations campaign in 2004 to stress the nutrition factor in potatoes.
Growers note that potatoes have more potassium than bananas, and that one serving provides roughly 45 percent of the daily recommended value for vitamin C. They also offer some fiber and other minerals and vitamins.
However, they also are high in carbohydrates — and calories, depending on how they are cooked — which can be a losing combination for couch potatoes.
Voight said he'll add spices and a bit of cooking oil to his 20-potatoes-per-day diet, but he won't heap on any butter, sour cream, cheese or any other tasty tidbits.
He acknowledged his all-potato diet was a publicity stunt, but he said only wants to promote the nutritional value of the spud.
"It's not like we're going to increase sales," he said.
Frank Muir, president and CEO of the Idaho Potato Commission, said it's wrong to single out potatoes.
"You don't have to eliminate any food. You just eat everything in proper balance, a variety of colors and focus on fruits and vegetables," said Muir, whose state leads the nation in potato production. "Obviously, I think potatoes should be the foundation vegetable."
But Muir isn't lining up just yet to join Voigt.
"If I didn't like chocolate chip cookies, I'd probably give it a shot," he said.