Merkley Pushes for Potatoes in WIC Program Over Nutritionists’ Concerns

The Senate Appropriations Committee has voted to require that the WIC program add potatoes to its vegetable package. The vote overrules scientific studies that show poor women and children already eat more potatoes than they need but not enough fruits and other vegetables.

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley has joined an effort by senators from potato-producing states to force the U.S. Department of Agriculture to add the white potato to the list of approved vegetables for its Women, Infants and Children food voucher program.

The foods offered by the WIC program are set based on a scientific process administered by the Institute of Medicine at the National Academy of Sciences. These experts determine which healthy foods poor women and children would be unlikely to eat without help; states can further limit the foods offered based on affordability. Each qualifying woman gets $10 a month for fruits and vegetables; each child gets $8 for this food group.

The potato, a plentiful part of the American diet across demographics, was pulled from the WIC list in 2009. Adding it back would displace the allotment spent on other vegetables and fruits that children and young mothers may not eat without the vouchers.

Merkley’s spokeswoman, Courtney Warner Crowell, says Oregon’s junior senator just wants to make sure that the USDA’s decision is built on sound science, and he wants the Institute of Medicine to redo their study.

“He is supportive of an agreement reached by the committee that asks for a study based on the best available and most  current science on potatoes,” Warner Crowell said. “If that study determines that potatoes should be included, then the FDA will not be allowed to exclude potatoes from WIC, and if that study determines they shouldn’t be included, then potatoes will be excluded from WIC. The Senator believes this is a good compromise.”

But despite Warner Crowell’s remarks, Merkley and the rest of the Senate Appropriations Committee are unwilling to wait for a new study. For the time being -- politics -- not science -- may dictate the contents of the WIC package.

Last week, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to trump the nutrition experts, passing an amendment to a spending bill that mandates the potato be in the WIC package until the new study is completed -- a process which, given the glacial pace that federal agencies deliberate, will take several years. Only Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, opposed the amendment.

The last study, which recommended that potatoes be removed, took place in 2005, and it wasn’t until 2009 that potatoes were taken off the menu. The official rules for the WIC package took effect only in 2011.

The bill is headed for the Senate floor and with such nominal opposition to the potato amendment, it’s unlikely to be stripped from the bill.

Merkley received $3,500 in campaign contributions from the National Potato Council but he’s also boosting a parochial industry. Oregon has the seventh-largest potato crop in the United States, growing almost two billion pounds of the spuds in a year.

Late last year, a similar effort was made to sneak language mandating potatoes into a different budget bill, calling for the WIC program “to include all varieties of fresh, whole, or cut vegetables, except for vegetables with added sugars, fats, oils; provided that inclusion of such vegetables contribute towards meeting the special nutritional needs of program participants and increases the availability of low-cost, high nutrient alternatives for participants throughout the year.”

But Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack rebuffed the move, falling back on the position that adding potatoes would not contribute to the special nutritional needs for the WIC population, nor would it expand the kinds of vegetables available to program participants. He won’t be able to do that if this amendment passes, because it calls for all raw vegetables, not just those that meet the nutritional needs of program participants.

“The thought of it is, ‘Let’s let the science lead and the science determine the food for inclusion,’” said Sue Woodbury, the state WIC director at the Oregon Health Authority’s Public Health Division. “The families that are already buying potatoes should get support buying the fruits and vegetables that they are not already purchasing.”

Earlier this month, 20 senators wrote a letter to Vilsack, demanding the addition of potatoes. Fifteen of these senators are from the top 10 potato-growing states, including Merkley and both senators from Washington and Idaho. Oregon’s other senator, fellow Democrat Ron Wyden, did not sign their letter to the USDA.

In the letter to Vilsack, which Merkley signed, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, notes the many healthy attributes of potatoes, including high amounts of fiber, potassium, Vitamin B6 and Vitamin B12. It also calls upon the USDA to take its scientific cues from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which includes a recommendation that Americans increase their consumption of a category of foods that includes potatoes.

But that category includes nearly all vegetables, and not potatoes specifically. The same guidelines point out that potatoes, especially chips and fried potatoes, are among the top dozen sources of calories in the American diet. Those dietary guidelines are also written for the general population, not the specific needs of pregnant women, babies and toddlers up through age 4 who receive help from WIC.

The fact that potatoes, aside from greasy chips and french fries, can be healthy is beside the point for why they are excluded from the WIC program, and Woodbury said no one was arguing that potatoes can’t be a healthy food item if prepared properly.

“We just don’t think that white potatoes are going to be missing from anyone’s diet. … They’re a rock star of the American diet. They’re ubiquitous. They’re widely available,” said Robyn Johnson, the public policy manager at Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon. “This is the program that is designed to start healthy eating patterns from an early stage. It’s a chance to try other potatoes and other types of vegetables.”

In setting its list of approved foods, the Institute of Medicine looks at “what are the unique nutritional needs during the period of rapid development that are different from the general public need. … Meat products have never been allowed,” Woodbury said.

Anyone who qualified for WIC would also be eligible for food stamps, where meat and potatoes can be readily purchased.

WIC is a supplemental food program designed to encourage people to eat the foods missing from their diet -- such as most fruits and green vegetables. Instead of meat, WIC offers eggs, cheese and milk as a protein source, as well as beans and brown rice. Canned tuna, salmon and sardines are approved for nursing women.

Because Oregon gets only a set amount of money to run the WIC program, other foods are excluded from the list to save on costs, such as some organic foods and brown eggs.

“We do what we can to serve as many people as possible,” Woodbury said.

Chris can be reached at [email protected].

By United States Senate ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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