New WIC Rules Continue to Shut Out Potatoes
March 5, 2014
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on Feb. 28 announced expanded offerings for participants in its Women, Infants and Children (WIC) feeding program but maintained its policy of prohibiting potato purchases with WIC vouchers. The National Potato Council (NPC) and members of Congress from major potato states registered sharp disapproval of the USDA’s continuing potato ban.
The $6.7-billion WIC program provides supplemental foods to low-income women who are pregnant or have five-year-old children or younger and aids nearly 9 million recipients. Five years ago the USDA made buying fruits and vegetables easier under WIC rules but specifically disallowed white potatoes. Last week’s modification brings yogurt and whole-grain pasta onto the food eligibility list and increases the value of vouchers for fruits and vegetables.
The NPC issued a statement Feb. 28 expressing disappointment that the USDA relied on outdated information and ignored current nutritional and consumption data that show that “today’s women and children are falling well short of their consumption targets for starchy vegetables.” The NPC pointed out that the USDA dismissed its own recommendations in its 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The NPC added that “including economical fresh white potatoes would supplement the diets of WIC participants with two of the four ‘nutrients of concern’—potassium and dietary fiber.”
The USDA’s official position is that it “recognizes that white potatoes can be a healthful part of one’s diet. However, WIC food packages are carefully designed to address the supplemental nutritional needs of a specific population.” The agency believes that the women in WIC are already buying plenty of economical potatoes and need help in securing other types of vegetables and fruits.
U.S. Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Mark Udall (D-CO) in a Feb. 28 press release “strongly objected” to the USDA’s anti-potato position. Two years ago the two senators spearheaded a Congressional response when the USDA proposed a virtual ban on potatoes in federally subsidized school feeding programs. Their efforts resulted in an appropriations-law provision that prohibited any limitations on potato use in school lunches for subsidized students.
Sen. Collins, who is from Aroostook County in Maine and dug potatoes as a youth, pointed out an irony in the USDA’s WIC policy. She stated that it “defies logic that WIC participants may purchase fresh white potatoes sold at a farmers’ market but may not purchase fresh white potatoes sold in grocery stores.” She added that “USDA’s decision ought to be driven by nutritional facts and food science. In that kind of review the fresh, white potato wins, hands down.”
Sen. Udall noted that “we need to ensure that the government does not take any fresh, healthy options—such as baked potatoes and other nutritious preparations—off the table for working families and children.” He vowed that he will “continue pushing the Obama Administration to correct this shortsighted decision and to ensure that the wellbeing of our families isn’t jeopardized by bureaucratic red tape and outdated science.”
U.S. Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine, asserted in a press release that “it is shortsighted and misguided to exclude [potatoes] from the program particularly given that less healthy options—like sugarcane—are included.”
In his own press release Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID) said he was “deeply disappointed in the USDA’s decision.” Earlier this year he succeeded in inserting language into the omnibus appropriations law requiring the USDA to submit a report to Congress explaining why it denies WIC recipients access to potatoes. The provision did not order a lifting of the prohibition but put the agency in the defensive position of having to justify its policy. In light of its latest refusal to include potatoes, Rep. Simpson stated in his press release that “I intend to use every means available to me, and any possible legislative vehicle that develops, to reverse this ban and restore the rightful inclusion of white potatoes in the WIC program.”
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