USDA Retreats on Potato Limitations in Final School Meal Rules

New rules do not, in fact, eliminate all potato restrictions

On April 24, 2024, USDA released its final rule overhauling its school breakfast and lunch programs, limiting sugar and further reducing sodium levels in meals. Notably for the potato industry, the department struck its current policy that permits schools to substitute vegetables for fruits at breakfast but requires that they serve the first two cups of vegetables from subgroups other than starchy before potatoes can be offered. The updated rule removes that limitation but still requires schools that choose to substitute vegetables for fruits at breakfast on two or more days per school week to offer vegetables from at least two different subgroups.

In May 2023, the National Potato Council issued a public comment stating that while USDA is taking steps to address regulatory limitations by continuing to allow vegetables to be substituted for fruit, the rules do not, in fact, eliminate all potato restrictions. “USDA provides an example of if a school offers a starchy vegetable on a Monday, they will then need to offer a different vegetable subgroup on a different day before offering a starchy vegetable again,” NPC wrote at the time.

In response to the new rules, NPC President and Colorado potato grower Bob Mattive wrote, “While we’re pleased that USDA has taken steps to provide flexibility to school meal operators, the department continues to treat potatoes differently than other vegetables. We believe that USDA should focus on increasing the consumption of all vegetables, rather than requiring school food service operators to jump through hoops to offer different categories of vegetables to their students.”

Additionally, NPC remains concerned that USDA allows certain vegetables – including starchy vegetables – to be considered “interchangeable” for grains in the new rules – a concept the Council currently opposes in the 2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans writing process.

“Grains and starchy vegetables play a fundamental, yet distinctly different role in contributing nutrients to kids’ diets,” said NPC CEO Kam Quarles. “The Department has argued that it is not considering reclassifying potatoes as a grain in the 2025 DGAs, yet we see they are authorizing their interchangeability in this regulation. This is a troublesome development, and one we take very seriously as the DGA writing process continues.”

Over the past several years, NPC has worked with Congress to ensure that schools have the flexibility to serve any vegetable as a substitute for fruit at breakfast, with no limitation. The Council is currently reviewing the final rule to determine its response to the new guidelines.