The Potato is Becoming the Unlikely Hero and Villain of Current Food Debates

Five guysopt
The public debate about food has run into a surprising crossroads, with some heralding the potato as the hero of the local food movement and others villifying it as a scourge on poor families. I took the above picture at Spokane's recently opened Five Guys burger sensation. When you walk into the fast food parlor the first thing you see are the bags of stacked potato bags next to the line of people standing in front of the cash register. When you look up from the retaining wall of potato bags you see the sign pictured above proclaiming, "Today's potatoes are from Warden, WA, Hatch Farms." It's one of the most simple and compelling local food messaging strategies I've seen in a restaurant.

The potato is quickly becoming the food of choice in marketing the local food message. They store for a long time. Most regions have local sources to tap into. They are cheap compared to other locally sourced foods like beef. And people are always looking for another good reason why they should eat a huge cup full of french fries. McDonald's has even gotten on the locally sourced potato bandwagon.

Like I've said before, I think this kind of development is generally great news. The more the local food ethic is mainstreamed into our everyday food lives the better. It's always good for people to be more connected to where their food comes from. I think this should be considered a victory for the local food movement.

But on another front-line of recent food system debates the potato is being singled out as enemy number one. Under pressure from health advocacy groups, the USDA recently pulled potatoes off the approved list of foods that can be purchased through the WIC (Women Infant Children) program for low-income families, and is considering pulling potatoes from school lunches as well. The potato industry is responding as reported by Northwest Food News;

The executive director of the Washington Potato Commission is on an unusual campaign to protest a decision by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Chris Voigt is on day 22 of a diet that even he admits is a little crazy. He’s eating 20 potatoes a day for 60 days. Chris Voigt is eating nothing but potatoes to get the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s attention and the public’s too. Voigt says recently the USDA excluded potatoes from its list of subsidized foods in low-income programs. And now the agency is deciding whether potatoes should be allowed in school lunches.

I guess that amounts to 20 potatoes a day.

The USDA is basing its actions on a report from the Institure of Medicince.The basic argument is that schools need to offer non-starchy vegetables. Potatoes are cheap and therefore schools rely on them to meet their vegetable requirements. 

So which is it? Hero or villain?