CARIBOU, Maine — Americans are eating fewer fresh potatoes than their parents and grandparents. But Van Buren farmer Jay Lajoie thinks that a new generation of eaters will soon see the spud as tasty, wholesome and a great pairing with pretty much anything.
The U.S. Potato Board is in the early stages of an ambitious campaign to reintroduce fresh preparations of the potato and counter its image as a starchy, fried junk food, Lajoie told his fellow farmers at the Maine Potato Conference in Caribou Jan. 20.
This year, the U.S. Potato Board is expanding its new Spud Nation food trucks from Denver to the East Coast — as the first agriculture advertising campaign “that will actually pay for itself,” said Lajoie, who worked on the board’s industry committee.
“This is one heck of a food truck,” Lajoie said, describing the $160,000 kitchen and its feature dishes, including classic fries, Italian gnocchi and Cuban braised beef with corn-potato croquettes.
Unlike a billboard, the mobile food truck “can actually target consumers, feed them with a delicious meal, and they pay you for you advertising to them,” Lajoie said.
The U.S. Potato Board is aiming to have 500 Spud Nation trucks in cities across the country, clearly going after the young adults who’ve embraced food trucks and “fast casual” eating. The board also is running a campaign called “Raise the Bar,” aiming to get 3,000 salad bars, featuring potatoes and other vegetables, into schools across the country.
This program, Lajoie said, is trying “to target Generation Z,” the 60 million school-age American kids who were born after millennials.
“Having potatoes on the salad bars allows people to realize that potatoes are actually a vegetable and are part of a well-balanced diet,” said Lajoie, whose family farm sells potatoes, grains and other root vegetables to both chip makers and the fresh market.
Both the food truck and salad bar are part of the potato industry’s decade-long effort to keep the market for fresh potatoes afloat — and ideally expand it.
While fresh and processed potato consumption around the world is strong, Americans are eating about 20 percent fewer fresh potatoes than they were in the 1970s, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. In Maine, potato production has fallen from its peak in the late 1940s, when some 5 billion pounds per year were harvested from more than 200,000 acres. Last year, a little less than 2 billion pounds were harvested from about 50,500 acres, mostly in Aroostook County.
The 1990s boom in low-fat products helped keep potato sales steady, but consumption of fresh potatoes has declined since the early 2000s, as low-carb diets such as Atkins highlighted the problems of too much carbohydrate consumption and the importance of healthy fats.
Today, there is a consensus that the federal government’s low-fat recommendations were wrong, although one of the potato’s best hopes may lie in pairing the spud with healthy fats — as the Andeans, Irish and other cultures traditionally have.
Recent studies in the New England Journal of Medicine and elsewhere have found that one of the best ways to prevent cardiovascular and other chronic diseases is eating a traditional Mediterranean diet, or one like it, incorporating healthy fats in oils and nuts, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and some dairy and meat, all in moderate proportions.
In the last decade, Americans have also developed a closer relationship with their food and its quality, as seen in the “renaissance of real fries” epitomized in Maine by Portland’s Duckfat, the Belgian cafe featuring Maine potatoes fried in rendered fat.
All of which leaves the industry with an opportunity to offer people potatoes both as treats — the fried preparations — and as a healthy, affordable staple that helps make other veggies taste better, Lajoie said.
A serving of potatoes can provide about 8 percent of recommended fiber, 18 percent of potassium intake and 45 percent of vitamin C, among other nutrients, particularly in darker fleshed varieties such as blues, reds and golds.
The Spud Nation Food Truck’s menu includes a fair number of deep fried recipes, with potato funnel cake, curly fries, puffed potato rings, cuban braised beef with potato corn croquettes. It also has more wholesome dishes, such as potato gnocchi with cherry tomatoes, arugula-pumpkin seed pesto and parmesan, and “Rocky Mountain Chowder.”
The U.S. Potato Board envisions that the salad bar, meanwhile, will be a place for kids to have potatoes on top of the “build your own” salads, as well as in recipes such as Thai potato veggie curry and Mediterranean potato salad with cucumbers and olives.
None of those salad bars in Maine schools yet, but Lajoie is hoping that there will be within a few years, as well as at least one Spud Nation food truck in the state, which he said could be an opportunity for food entrepreneurs open to partnering with the U.S. Potato Board.
“We not only want to sell potatoes we have in storage now, but sell potatoes in the future,” Lajoie said. To do that, he said, the industry needs to “improve the perception of nutrition and health benefits of potatoes.”