Pushing Potatoes: How The Long Island Spuds Fared

In spite of the rise of grape growing on eastern Long Island, one of the largest crops in our farm fields continues to be potatoes. The Long Island Potato crop is not as great as it once was in competition with Idaho and Maine, but it is still a presence, and local potato growers were in the thick of it, so to speak, as the U. S. Department of Agriculture fought mightily to change the rules of what can be served to children in our school cafeterias, something that has not been done in 15 years, hoping that Congress would mandate school lunch laws to curb obesity and childhood diabetes around our nation. The recommendation by the U.S.D.A. was to reduce the amount of potatoes served to kids in school to one cup a week.

The U.S.D.A. said salt, which is usually sprinkled on potatoes, makes you weird, the starch in potatoes made your energy spike and then collapse because it is so easily digested – and this bounce is as severe as the bounce you got in a 12 ounce can of Coke. Specifically, the U.S.D.A. paper urges Congress to mandate broccoli and other green vegetables as replacements for potatoes the other four school days a week. [expand]

Other foods were also on the chopping block. The U.S.D.A. saw no redeeming nutritional value in serving pizza for example. And pizza is rampant at school lunch counters.

Lobbyists from Oregon, Idaho and Maine led the good fight for potatoes against the U.S.D.A. in Congress. And they won. Potatoes will not be limited to one cup a week. Eat all the potatoes you want.

There was also a big lobbying effort by the pizza industry in this battle. Thirty years ago, lobbyists tried to get ketchup declared a vegetable after a fight with the U.S.D.A. Now, this time around, the pizza industry scored a triumphant success. Pizza is now also listed as a vegetable. As for the potato one cup a week dropping, the Maine Potato Board honored Senator Susan Collins, who fought fiercely to keep the potato alive in school lunchrooms and succeeded, at a luncheon.

About a week later, the Irish Food Board (known as Bord Bia) commissioned a study to find what the reasons were for the decline in consumption of potatoes in that country. The number of potatoes consumed per capita has dropped by 25% since 2005 and this is a worrisome thing.

The board noted that Irish politicians have been dithering with the idea of putting a “fat tax” on certain foods to try to ward off the sort of obesity problem we have here in the United States, and processed potato products are on that list. The Board doesn’t want that to happen and they didn’t think eating potatoes causes obesity.

“We believe that emotionally, most Irish consumers still love to eat their potatoes,” the announcement of the study reads. “But several key issues negatively impact their consumption.”

Among them is the fact that the youth of Ireland consider the potato something from an earlier generation. They remember during those rough economic times in Ireland years ago that every night, no matter “the Troubles” or the depression or anything else, the housewives of that country presented piles of boiled meat, vegetables and potatoes on everybody’s plates every night.

Also there was the great potato famine of the 1840s, when blight destroyed the potato crop for several years. It was hard to forget that a million people died in that famine and a million people emigrated to get away from it.

The announcement also conceded that preparing pasta and rice takes just 10 and 15 minutes respectively while preparing potatoes takes half an hour and includes peeling.

Finally, the Irish Food Board mentioned the popularity of the Atkins Diet in Ireland with its focus on protein rather than carbohydrate.

The potato has been mistakenly considered a fattening food, the announcement continued.

The New York Times, which reported on this announcement last week, spoke to a Dublin dietitian named Paula Mee.

“In terms of overall nutrition and including Vitamin C,” she said, “the potato is head and shoulders ahead of pasta and rice.”

She also talked about the fact that pasta and rice packaging is colorful and alluring. Potatoes come in a sack.

No mention was made of the bounce factor or the sodium factor or the comparison to Coca Cola and the fear of diabetes and heart disease. Nor was there any talk about the siren song of serving potatoes, the worst of which are frying, and the next to worst of which, when you consider baked potatoes, the fixin’s, the salt, the sour cream, cheddar cheese bits, bacon or other fattening stuff that gives the potato flavor. The focus was on the potato, pure and simple.

Finally, there was the announcement, in July by McDonalds, that if you order a happy meal for your kid, you will no longer get a burger, a sleeve of fries and a coke, you will get a burger, a half a sleeve of fries, a coke, AND A SLICED APPLE.

I’ve been to McDonalds in Southampton several times this past month but haven’t seen a menu sign about any apples. Maybe the word hasn’t trickled down quite yet.

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