Are Idaho’s famous potatoes vegetables or … grains?! Senators take a stand in food debate

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Potatoes might be reclassified as a grain, but not if Idaho’s senators have their way.

U.S. Sens. Jim Risch and Mike Crapo, along with a bipartisan group of 12 other senators, have called on the departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services to keep the potato classified as a vegetable. Their letter concerns the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which is published every five years by the USDA and HHS. A recent report from The Wall Street Journal said the advisory committee for the guidelines is considering reclassifying the potato as a grain.

The letter, which was addressed to Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack and Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra, argues that potatoes should keep their vegetable classification because they’re a good source of potassium, calcium, vitamin C, vitamin B6 and fiber.

“In fact, potatoes have more potassium than bananas, a food that is commonly associated with being high in potassium,” the letter said.

Don’t just take the senators’ word for it, though. The letter cited a 2013 study published by the National Library of Medicine saying that “potatoes should be included in the vegetable group because they contribute critical nutrients.”

Idaho U.S. Sens. Mike Crapo, left, and Jim Risch. Both are members of the Republican Party.
Idaho U.S. Sens. Mike Crapo, left, and Jim Risch. Both are members of the Republican Party.

What would a change mean?

Potatoes are by far the most eaten vegetable in the U.S., according to the USDA. A 2019 study found that the average American eats 49.4 pounds of potatoes a year, compared to 31.4 pounds of tomatoes, the second-most-eaten vegetable, and 9.4 pounds of onions, which came in third.

A change in their classification would mean that vegetable consumption across the country would go down, technically, although the nutrients in potatoes wouldn’t magically disappear.

The senators aren’t so sure.

“If potatoes were to be reclassified, consumers would miss out on vital nutrients,” the letter warns.

Classifying potatoes as a grain would especially affect school lunch programs, which need a cheap way to offer meals that meet vegetable intake guidelines.

“Schools already struggle to meet vegetable consumption recommendations at a reasonable cost, and potatoes are often the most affordable vegetable,” the letter said.

On a more ominous note, the senators warn that classifying potatoes as a grain would “immediately confuse consumers, retailers, restaurant operators, growers, and the entire supply chain.”

But it’s really about the economy, right?

The senators also could be worried about the economic impact that a reclassification would have on their home states. Idaho produces a third of the potatoes grown in the U.S., according to the state agriculture department. Potato farms in the state brought in $1.3 billion in 2023, per a University of Idaho study. According to Jamey Higham, the president and CEO of the Idaho Potato Commission, reclassifying the food would affect how much funding the potato industry receives.

“It would affect our funding from different agencies in the government that would now put us in the same basket as the grains,” Higham said. “We would no longer be a specialty crop, which would mean a whole different set of guidelines.”

A change in the food’s classification would offer meal programs that aim to meet federal vegetable consumption guidelines, such as school lunches, less incentive to buy potatoes.

It also would affect individual consumers, according to Higham, especially those facing food insecurity. Classifying potatoes as a grain could lead to people who rely on government meal programs spending more on vegetables.

“Whenever this comes up, the next topic is almost inevitably food insecurity. … I think it has some severe economic impacts on all of the feeding programs, whether it’s WIC, school lunch, school breakfast, because it just messes up the food pyramid a little bit,” Higham said.