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PORTLAND, Maine—Around here, you can find "Maine Potato Candy"—mashed potatoes rolled in coconut and dipped in chocolate—and potato donuts. A popular county fair offers wrestling matches in a vat of potatoes. In a state where spuds are the top agricultural product, locals can't get enough of them, even at schools.

"We've got to have potatoes—our children are used to potatoes," says Louise Bray, food-service director for Caribou, Maine, public schools. She regularly serves hash browns for breakfast, plus mashed potatoes, "Maine fries," a baked potato bar and potato puffs for lunch.

But now the federal government wants to all but toss tubers out of school.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is proposing to eliminate the "white potato"—defined as any variety but the sweet potato—from federally subsidized school breakfasts and to limit them sharply at lunch.

Messing with a stalwart like the spud doesn't go well with the potato industry, school cafeteria directors and legislators from potato-growing regions. They're fighting to see that in schools, no potato is left behind.

As part of the effort, spud sellers are promoting potatoes as a "true gateway vegetable" that could lead kids to broccoli.

At a March Senate hearing on the USDA budget, Sen. Susan Collins (R., Maine) hoisted a standard-fare brown-skinned spud in one hand and, in the other, a head of iceberg lettuce, which hasn't come under explicit federal scrutiny. One medium white potato contains nearly twice the vitamin C "as this entire head," she said, asking: "So my question, Mr. Secretary, is what does the department have against potatoes?"

The proposed change is part of a push to make school meals healthier, with more nutrient-rich vegetables and fewer French fries. Under the USDA proposal, school cafeterias would have to limit starchy vegetables such as potatoes, corn, peas and lima beans to a total of one cup per week for lunch.

"Our potato bar will go away. It will cease to exist," says Anji Baumann, child nutrition director for the Gooding and Shoshone School Districts in Idaho. The Gooding district won a USDA award for schools that feed children healthier meals and promote physical activity.

Ms. Baumann offers a popular "baked potato bar" twice a week—using locally grown spuds—with various themed toppings. Themes range from Mexican (with toppings including salsa and refried beans) to Pizza (low-fat mozzarella, low-sodium Canadian bacon and veggies).

With the USDA set to release final rules in coming months, and put them into effect in the 2012-2013 school year, the National Potato Council in Washington, D.C., is urging the "entire potato industry" to mobilize.

In its "Tell USDA to Keep Potatoes in Schools!" campaign, the National Potato Council calls the spud affordable and "kid pleasing," adding "familiar shapes make lunchtime fun." It bills potatoes as a "gateway," that can introduce students to other vegetables "in, around, and on top of the potato." The Maine Potato Board similarly touts the spud as a "conduit" veggie, which because of its "immense popularity" can propel people to eat broccoli or spinach as toppings.

If spud advocates are feeling a bit thin-skinned, it may be because the potato has suffered snubs in recent years. The low-carb craze upended decades of meat-and-potato teachings. Also, there's the ongoing problem that although nutritionists tell people to eat more veggies, many don't see the potato as being one. Chips and fries came under fire amid concerns about childhood obesity and Americans becoming couch potatoes.

Last year, the government said participants in the USDA's program for low-income pregnant women and their children couldn't use federal money to buy white potatoes. The Institute of Medicine, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, made the recommendation, arguing most people already eat enough potatoes and should be encouraged to eat other vegetables.

The white potato was the only veggie excluded, a slight that so infuriated the head of the Washington State Potato Commission that he went on a 60-day, all-potato diet to illustrate that the spud is wholesome.

"Potatoes are really nutritious," says Heidi Kessler, school nutrition project manager for Let's Go!, a Portland, Maine, childhood-obesity prevention program that encourages schools to eliminate fries or serve them once a week. "It's the preparation that causes the problem."

Indeed, much is heaped on the potato. At the annual Eastern State Exposition last fall, the state-run "Maine Building" served up 47 tons of baked potatoes, smothered with 10,500 pounds of sour cream, 8,040 pounds of cheddar cheese, 4,670 pounds of butter and 560 pounds of bacon bits over 17 days.

Schools represent a thin slice of sales for many potato processors. But "even though it's a small percent, the sheer number of meals means it's still important," says a spokeswoman for ConAgra Foods Inc., which supplies potato products to schools.

Ms. Bray, the Caribou, Maine, school food-service director, has tried serving sweet-potato fries, but students "just don't like them," she says. "They cost more than our potatoes and most of it goes into the trash."

The USDA isn't so much "discriminating against potatoes," but wants to move away from the "fried nature" that some schools are preparing, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack testified to the Senate in March.

While many schools don't deep-fry potatoes any longer, they offer "baked" fries—which can have less oil but may still be lightly fried by the processor.

University High School, in Spokane, Wash., serves about 400 individual boats of fries per day, though the number goes down when pizza is on the menu, according to school officials. Clayton Palmquist, an 18-year-old senior, says the fries and sub sandwiches are the best items served at school, adding that he "dislikes pretty much everything else" in the cafeteria. "I don't touch most of it," he says.
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