By Scott Mitchell Johnson
“Disappointing,” “mystifying” and “defies logic” are some of the ways Maine’s political leaders are describing the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recent decision to continue to exclude white potatoes from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC).
WIC is designed to provide supplemental foods to meet the special nutritional needs of low-income pregnant, breast-feeding, non-breast-feeding postpartum women, and infants and children up to 5 years of age who are at nutritional risk.
“I am extremely disappointed that, despite overwhelming evidence showing the nutritional benefits of white potatoes, USDA has decided to continue its exclusion of fresh potatoes from the WIC program,” said U.S. Sen. Angus King. “WIC is designed to provide critical nutritional support to young mothers and their children by giving them access to fruits and vegetables, and white potatoes are an essential and low-cost component of a healthy and nutritious diet.
“It is shortsighted and misguided to exclude them from the program particularly given that less healthy options — like sugarcane — are included,” he said.
Last spring, King co-sponsored an amendment to the Senate Farm Bill which would have included white potatoes in the WIC program. This amendment, which was authored by U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, did not receive a vote on the Senate floor. In October, as the 2013 Farm Bill headed to conference, King wrote a letter to Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Thad Cochran, chairwoman and ranking member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition & Forestry, respectively, outlining several farming and food issues of particular importance to Maine, including that all white potatoes be included in the WIC program.
“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,” said Collins. “The potato has more potassium than bananas, a food commonly associated with this nutrient which is important for pregnant women and new mothers. Potatoes are cholesterol-free, fat-free and sodium-free, and can be served in countless healthy ways.
“It also 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 said. “Potatoes are an affordable and nutrient-dense food that all WIC participants should be able to purchase regardless of the merchant.”
Currently, fresh white potatoes are the only fresh fruit or vegetable excluded from the WIC food package, which — according to Collins — sends a message to Americans that potatoes are not nutritious.
Potatoes’ exclusion from the USDA rule went into effect in December 2009 and is based on recommendations of the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans report, which uses consumption data that is nearly 20 years old. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, however, recommends five to six cups of these vegetables per week for women with a daily caloric intake of 1,800 to 2,400 calories — an increase of two to three cups per week from the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
“It is disappointing that USDA ignored Congress’ intent that it bring the USDA rule for the WIC food package in line to reflect the most recent 2010 DGA,” said Collins, noting that a medium baked potato contains 15 percent of the daily recommended value of dietary fiber, 27 percent of the daily recommended value for vitamin B6, and 28 percent of the daily recommended value of Vitamin C.
Describing the USDA’s decision as “mystifying,” Rep. Michael Michaud agreed with Collins and wrote to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack asking why potatoes were not included in the new WIC program regulations. Michaud also added that Maine’s potato farmers are invested in growing the finest quality potatoes and requested an explanation for their exclusion from the federal nutrition program.
Tim Hobbs, director of development/grower relations for the Maine Potato Board, said the ruling is illogical.
“We’re not surprised; this has been a battle for over a year,” he said. “It’s an issue with the USDA because it’s an issue of the Obama Administration.
“The decision makes no sense at all; it isn’t logical. Apparently common sense and science have gone out the window,” said Hobbs. “They haven’t been able to explain the downside to including potatoes into the program. The most substance that they’ve had is saying, ‘They’re already getting enough potatoes,’ which is pretty lame. You can take your WIC dollars, go to a farm stand and buy potatoes with it, but you can’t take the same WIC dollars and go to the grocery store to buy potatoes. It makes no sense.”
Hobbs said while the ruling is final, the issue may not be over.
“The interesting thing about the legislative process is there’s always other avenues, which I believe are being explored,” he said. “I would not want to be the Secretary of Agriculture and be as adamant on that position and have a senator from Maine [Collins] be sitting on the appropriations committee deciding what my budget’s going to be next year when I could have fixed this and made it go away, but refused to.
“We have a great delegation from Maine and they’ve all weighed in,” said Hobbs. “I’m sure they’ll all do what they can moving forward.”
According to Vilsack, the finalized changes — which increase access to fruits and vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy — are based on the latest nutrition science.
“The updates to the WIC food package make pivotal improvements to the program and better meet the diverse nutritional needs of mothers and their young children,” said Vilsack. “The foods provided by the WIC program, along with education that focuses on the critical role of breast-feeding and proper nutrition, help to ensure that every American child has the opportunity to grow up healthy and strong.”
Along with a more than 30 percent increase in the dollar amount for children’s fruit and vegetable purchases, the changes also:
• Expand whole grain options available to participants.
• Provide yogurt as a partial milk substitute for children and women.
• Allow parents of older infants to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables instead of jarred infant food if they choose.
• Give states and local WIC agencies more flexibility to meet the nutritional and cultural needs of WIC participants.
According to the USDA’s final rule, the restriction of white potatoes, as recommended by the Institute of Medicine, is based on data indicating that consumption of starchy vegetables meets or exceeds recommended amounts, and food intake data showing that white potatoes are the most widely used vegetable.
“Including white potatoes in the WIC food packages would not contribute towards meeting the nutritional needs of the WIC population and would not support the goal of expanding the types and varieties of fruits and vegetables available to program participants, as recommended by the IOM,” wrote the USDA. “The Department 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.
“Although white potatoes are not offered in the WIC food package, nutrition education provided to WIC participants will continue to include white potatoes as a healthy source of nutrients and an important part of a healthful diet,” the USDA wrote.
More information about the changes and the WIC program can be found at www.fns.usda.gov/wic.