by Marion Nestle
Nov 3 2011

One potato, two potato: Undue industry influence in action

Yesterday’s New York Times’ report (in which I am quoted) reminds me that it’s time I commented on the astonishing dispute about potatoes in school meals.

On October 20, 2009, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) issued a report on nutrition standards for school meals.  It recommended that school meals be aligned with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.  To do so, the IOM said USDA should

Adopt standards for menu planning that increase the amounts of fruits, vegetables and whole grains; increase the focus on reducing the amounts of saturated fat and sodium provided; and set a minimum and maximum level of calories.

To do that, the IOM said USDA should establish (1) weekly requirements for dark green and orange vegetables and legumes, and (2) limits—of one cup a week—on starchy vegetables such as white potatoes, corn, lima beans, and peas.

The IOM’s quite sensible rationale?  To encourage students to try new vegetables in place of the familiar starchy ones.

In January this year, the USDA proposed new nutrition standards for school meals based on the IOM report.  These included the IOM’s recommendation of no more than one cup a week of starchy vegetables.

Please note: the proposal does not call for elimination of starchy vegetables.  It calls for a limit of two servings a week (one cup is two servings).

What’s wrong with that?  Plenty, according to the potato industry, which stands to sell fewer products to the government and could not care less about spreading the wealth around to other vegetable producersPotato lobbyists went to work (apparently the sweet corn, lima bean, and pea industries do not have the money to pay for high-priced lobbying talent).  The Potato Council held a press conference hosted by Senators from potato-growing states.

The result?  The U.S. Senate added an amendment to the 2012 agriculture spending bill blocking the USDA from “setting any maximum limits on the serving of vegetables in school meal programs.”

Mind you, I like potatoes.  They are thoroughly delicious when cooked well, have supported entire civilizations, and certainly can contribute to healthful diets.  Two servings a week seems quite reasonable.  So does encouraging consumption of other vegetables as well.

But what’s at stake here goes way beyond the choice of one vegetable over another.

At issue is Senate micromanagement of nutrition standards under pressure from food industry lobbyists. 

  • Lobbyists have no business trying to influence nutrition standards.
  • The Senate has no business micromanaging nutrition standards.

This is one more—and a particularly egregious—example of undue industry influence on federal dietary guidance policy.  It is just plain wrong.

  • Dave

    I understand the principle. But this hardly seems the issue. Take a step back, and I think most people would be delighted if our dietary problem was overeating potatoes, peas, corn and lima beans.

    Again, I understand the sentiment about lobbyist pressure in the food industry. But I would rather save my angst for the more problematic offenders.

  • Nathan Milligan

    To me it seems as though we ought to be correcting the issue of eating an abundance of fried potatoes (and counting them as veggies) and the near exclusion of anything but Russet potatoes.

    Perhaps we can get the USDA to encourage consumption of veggies that are raised by local growers, thus (hopefully) bypassing the larger companies and helping rebuild local economies.

  • Anthro


    The principle is, well…the PRINCIPLE after all. What good is declaring something to be true in principle and then ignoring it in favor of bad policy? I diet heavy in starchy veggies is not good and when industry promotes it for their own narrow interests, it is wrong in PRINCIPLE.

    I, for one, am not “delighted” that children are “overeating potatoes, peas, corn and lima beans”!

    Just who, in your estimation, would be the “more problematic offenders”?

    It is this special interest meddling that ultimately makes government ineffective in protecting public health–and lowering health care costs for everyone. This is just another example of the 1% riding roughshod over the 99% because they can pay to be heard.

  • Joe

    Isn’t this problem one started by the Federal Government? They have meddled in nutrition policy for decades and to what end? Many say that the general healthy of our nation is worsening.

    It would be better for the government to get out of the nutrition business as the policies they blanket the country with are hard to implement and ineffective. Of course they sound good and give a warm fuzzy feeling that our government is on the job protecting us which may work as far as military power (a Constitutionally prescribed role of government) but is a huge waste of time and money when it comes to making nutrition policy.

  • The main problem isn’t kids eating potatoes — it’s kids eating French fries. A potato can be quite nutritious, but school lunch usually serves processed potatoes which should be more accurately labeled a fat rather than a starch

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  • MargaretRC

    @Joe, exactly! Well said. The sooner the government gets out of the business of nutrition, the better off we will all be. The really sad thing is we, as adults can choose to ignore nutrtion standards we don’t agree with but children in public schools that are mandated to follow government standards can’t. If we must have standards for schools, it would be nice if those standards were at least based on actual scientific knowledge of what growing kids, whose nutritional needs are different from an adult’s, should (and shouldn’t) be eating!

  • Ellen

    I really appreciate that Dr. Nestle linked to the relevant documents in this post! I’m looking through the IOM report right now, and though I’m not too far in, several things have jumped out at me.

    1) The IOM report relied very heavily on the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Thanks to Margaret’s comments yesterday, I learned that the 2010 Dietary Guidelines were “the first DGAC which used an evidence-based approach to review a wide range of nutrition topics” (and it was noted that there were challenges in coming up with evidence to support the 2010 Dietary Guidelines)– which certainly makes it sound like the 2005 DGAC did not use an evidence-based approach; making non-evidence-based guidelines the basis for IOM’s recommendations strikes me as problematic.

    2) The Potato Council didn’t contribute to the production of the IOM’s recommendations, but quite a few lobbyists did. Some of the relevant groups that “provided oral testimony to the committee during the public workshops that were held on July 8, 2009, and January 28, 2009” were the Apple Processors Association, Sunkist Taylor LLC, United Fresh Produce Association, and the U.S. Apple Association. Bet Sunkist & “Big Apple” are thrilled that the new requirements call for more servings of fruit; their presentations must have been really convincing!

    3) My old friend the 2009 Gleason & Dodd report shows up on page 63, where it’s cited as showing that “School Breakfast Program participants had significantly lower BMI than did nonparticipants.” The actual Gleason & Dodd report notes that the SBP participants’ average BMI was only barely statistically significant, and “was driven largely by the negative effect of SBP participation on BMI among non-Hispanic white students. There was no evidence of systematic differences in the effect of SBP participation across the other subgroups we examined, including age/gender and household income.” To me, that 2009 Gleason & Dodd report really made the School Breakfast Program and School Lunch Programs look awful– I’m not sure why people keep citing thetiny bits of positive things it shows (if you don’t look too closely) about the SBP and SLP while ignoring the mountains of negative things it reveals.

  • Of course, the money wins. To Dave’s point, the only other lobby I can see having greater power and influence is the National Chicken Finger Society. I went to a food service show for the county school district a few years ago, as a representative parent from the school. I was given the opportunity to sample no fewer than 15 different chicken fingers from a variety of manufacturers. Nasty, nasty, nasty. To the point of potatoes, DO NOT THINK for a moment that food service workers in the majority of schools are sitting out on the loading dock peeling potatoes and cooking them on site. At that same chicken finger fiesta, there was a person demonstrating this “Awesome” device his company created that allowed food service workers to extrude mashed potatoes directly onto the student’s plate. Powdered potato flakes and water went up top, and out came mashies, just like your mother made (NOT). Unless you have first hand knowledge of how your school’s kitchen is operated, don’t go under the assumption that what students receive on their plates is even made on site. It usually isn’t, and it usually isn’t good.

  • MargaretRC

    @Tina, of course money wins. It always has. “Follow the money” is a recurrent phrase in the (excellent) documentary “Fat Head” about bad science in the field of nutrition. It is particularly relevant in this issue.

  • Ellen

    Also, if our common goal is to provide children with good nutrition while keeping costs reasonable, why should any of us care about “spreading the wealth around to other vegetable producers”? I mean, clearly Sunkist, the Apple Processors Association, and the U.S. Apple Association would like a bigger cut (and the IOM report noted that the new requirements would likely increase costs– for the whole U.S.– and be a boon to fruit-producers in states like California and Florida).

    If the Senate shouldn’t be micromanaging nutrition standards, who should? Why would you trust the the political appointees of the USDA more than the Senate, made up of elected officials? At least we can vote the Senators out if they do something we disapprove of. If you truly want more nutritional regulation from the government, you are going to see nutritional regulation that’s largely about politics (such as whether the fruit farmers of California who lobby the IOM or the potato farmers of Maine who lobby their Senator are going to get more federally distributed money), not about science. The only way to prevent politics from influencing governmental nutritional regulations would be to get rid of democracy.

  • MargaretRC

    I’m not sure that getting rid of democracy is necessary to get the Politics out of nutritional regulations, at least I hope not! Maybe just get the government out of nutritional regulation. Plenty of democratic governments know enough not to try to regulate or advise their constituents on what to eat/not eat. We made the mistake of doing that based on literally fraudulent science in the 70s and it’s been costing us heavily ever since. What did we do before government stepped in and started telling us what we should/should not be eating (and subsidizing crops they thought we should be eating more of?) We ate what our grandparents and their grandparents before them ate. We didn’t have things like vegetable oils and trans fats, and genetically modified franken wheat. We also didn’t have skyrocketing rates of obesity, diabetes, cancer and heart disease.

  • Ellen

    Margaret, I’m with you. I don’t think we need to get rid of democracy to keep politics and food separate if we get the government out of nutritional regulation; it’s only the “governmental” in “governmental nutritional regulations” that makes it subject to politics. I was trying to point out that Dr. Nestle’s recommendations often involve lots of government power, as far from democratic control as possible.

  • It always comes down to cost. If was can get misplaced subsidies out of our system, then maybe the leafy greens and healthy vegetables won’t be so cost prohibitive. As long as government *does* have a say in nutrition, we could use cost-analysis to our advantage.

  • Margeretrc

    @ Ellen, no worries. I didn’t take your statement about democracy any more seriously than you meant it. Sorry if it sounded as if I did. BTW, thanks for reading the actual IOM report and commenting. Good job.

  • Joe

    There is another angle to the potato discussion, well actually two. They are cost and preference. Potato dishes are inexpensive to purchase and prepare and they are widely accepted by the target customer (kids) at the same time. To a food services operator this is a win win combination. A combination that seems lost to academia.

  • Thanks Marion, as always, for calling attention to atrocious actions by food lobbyists and politicians. As a substitute teacher in Michigan, I see some terrible lunches served to students everywhere I go. It’s a shame that the people who wield the most power over students’ diets (and subsequent health) are most concerned about profits and politics. When greasy cheesy bread, french fries, and carrot sticks becomes an acceptable lunch (as I saw at one school where I taught this week), it’s time we took a good hard look at our priorities.

    I know that it’s not realistic for all public schools to serve organic beef and an elaborate array of freshly chopped vegetables. They have a tight budget and limited kitchen staff. But no one is asking for that kind of a menu. The USDA is asking for meals that are just slightly healthier. A few less potatoes, a little less salt, and a bit more vegetables. In a country that claims to care about its children’s health, this shouldn’t be too much to ask.

  • Drew


    The cost and preference argument is certainly not lost on academia, it is understood all too well as one of the problems. Public school cafeterias are not restaurants, the students should not be treated as customers. If we as a society have decided to allocate some of our tax money to feed kids at school to promote nutritional well being, then the primary consideration should be nutrition, not what sells well.

    The main obstacle to implementing sound nutritional policy is the profit motive of the food industry. The micromanaging senators and political appointees in the USDA would have long ago created better policy if they were more accountable to the people (namely the school childrens’ parents) and less beholden to the interests of Big Agribusiness.

    With some decent policy on the books, and school lunchrooms run by well trained (and living wage employed, please) staff, healthy school lunches can become a reality, sans tater tots.

  • L

    I would much prefer policy be made by congress, aka elected officials accountable to the public, than by some federal agency! Seriously, I don’t understand how, once you accept federal gov oversight of school lunches (I think should be local issue like all educational issues), you can make an argument that unaccountable bureaucrats would make better policy than elected officials.

  • Ellen

    Joe, if the profit motive bothers you, you’re probably very at odds with Dr. Nestle, whose motive for supporting these new regulations isn’t that she thinks potatoes are less healthy than other vegetables, but that she’s in favor of “spreading the wealth around to other vegetable producers”!

    If you agree that Congress and the USDA are too beholden to Big Agribusiness, how on earth do you expect to get “decent policy on the books”– Congress and the USDA are the ones writing the policies. L’s approach, to handle these issues on the local level, rather than the federal level as Dr. Nestle advocates, would do a lot to keep control in the hands of parents rather than bought and paid for politicians and their appointees.

  • Lois

    Have been retired for 10 years, but was a school food service director for 23 years. To keep costs down, WE SERVED THE FOODS WE RECEIVED FROM THE GOVERNMENT!!!!!! Potatoes? TONS of them!
    Have been out of the business for 10 years, but I’m guessing that there’s no more nutrition education taking place in the classroom than there was in the 70’s, 80’s or 90’s.
    Maybe some education — of both students AND adults (all they know about food and nutrition is what they learn from TV ads!) would help all people choose a more ‘balanced’ diet?

  • eric hitchcock

    As Usual, those advocating local control forget that local officials are the easiest/cheapest to buy. But, Federal officials have the ability to make policy over all equally, if done with intelligence and science based facts, and can influence greatly local control.
    Jamie Oliver can attest to what local people/parents/officials will and wont do for their children.

  • Sherry

    I must chime in as a current Food Service Director. In theory, Courtney’s right – “A few less potatoes, a little less salt, and a bit more vegetables. In a country that claims to care about its children’s health, this shouldn’t be too much to ask.”

    However, we must take baby steps! These kids rebel! We tried one day to replace their regular fries at the High School with Sweet Potato fries and we found them all dumped in the middle of all the tables. I guess they showed us! All of these ideas are wonderful…if the kids will try the new veggies. If a wonderful veggie ends up in the garbage, it did nobody any good. You can lead a horse to water…

  • L Johnson

    The govt is involved in nutrition at the school level because billions of federal tax dollars support the school lunch program. As long as my tax dollars are going for school lunches, I want nutrition standards. I don’t want my money going for potato chips so later I get to pay for kids health related obesity problems through other tax dollars.

  • Joe

    Potato chips cause obesity? Did I miss that memo?

  • Sherry

    I must chime in one more time and I’m not trying to divert the responsibility of feeding the kids healthy food, but…
    I’ve often been concerned with what the students are eating at home and with more and more of our students on Food Stamps, it’s become a hot topic with me!

    Are potato chips, pop, candy, and cookies still allowed to be purchased using Food Stamps? Seems like that’s a good place to start eliminating the unhealthy food choices, don’t you think?

  • D

    At 34 minute mark, potatoes in school meals are discussed by Susan Collins (R-ME) in this Sept. 8 2011 Senate Appropriations Hearing

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