Starch Clampdown!

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From the Reagan-era proposal to classify ketchup as a vegetable to present-day squabbles over chocolate milk, school-lunch menus have long been a source of controversy in the United States. Now, a newly proposed rule is drawing outcry from some and praise from others: a federal requirement that would limit servings of starchy vegetables in school lunches to two half-cup servings per week.

The rule, part of a National School Lunch Program overhaul that was mandated by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, could go into effect beginning in the 2012–13 school year. According to a recent article in the Baltimore Sun, the proposed rule is based on recommendations by the federal Institute of Medicine, whose goals include both stemming childhood obesity (which is associated with higher rates of obesity and Type 2 diabetes later in life) and ensuring adequate servings of other vegetables, especially dark orange and leafy green ones. The proposed restrictions would apply to white potatoes, corn, peas, and lima beans.

Among several people interviewed for the Sun article, the prospect of restricting white potatoes drew the most resistance. Advocates for allowing more servings of spuds noted that high-fat cooking methods have already been largely eliminated from schools, that potato-based dishes are inexpensive and popular, and that potatoes are a good source of potassium, which has been labeled a “nutrient of concern” by the US Department of Agriculture. Some object that sweet potatoes would not be restricted under the proposed rules, even though they are just as starchy as white potatoes and have, they say, minor or irrelevant nutritional differences. Still others argue that schoolchildren are unlikely to eat healthier vegetables, so serving them would be a waste.

The proposed rule change reflects the fact that the under the National School Lunch Program, potatoes and corn are classified as vegetables along with nonstarchy items such as carrots, green beans, and broccoli. Grains, on the other hand, are a separate category that will remain unaffected by the rule change. Thus, the overall starch and carbohydrate content of school lunch menus is unlikely to drop significantly if the rule goes into effect as planned.

What do you think — does this rule change make sense? Should schools try to ensure that children will actually eat certain vegetables before introducing more servings of them? Should corn and potatoes be classified as vegetables, or put in the same category as other starchy foods such as grains? Should new rules aim to limit the overall content of quickly digested starches or carbohydrates, rather than just focusing on starchy vegetables? Leave a comment below!

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