Following a recent victory in their bid to get potatoes approved for use by the USDA's Women, Infants and Children program, potato industry officials said the significance of changing the policy has more to do with perception than sales.
The House Appropriations Committee approved a 2013 Agriculture Appropriations bill Tuesday that includes an amendment, introduced by Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, allowing states to add fresh potatoes to their WIC programs. The bill will next be considered by the full House but hasn't been scheduled for debate.
"This important amendment corrects the unfair exclusion on fresh potatoes and allows participants to make smart, wholesome food choices for their young families," Simpson said in a press release.
The WIC program expanded to include fresh fruits and vegetables, aside from potatoes, in October 2009. The agency reasoned WIC participants were already getting enough potatoes in their diet. WIC provides food vouchers to low-income pregnant and breast-feeding women and children under five years old.
The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare reported a monthly average of 44,691 residents received WIC benefits totaling $48 per month, per participant, in Fiscal Year 2011.
"It's not so much the (sales) size amount. It's the message. Right now the only vegetable or fruit excluded from WIC is potatoes," said Idaho Potato Commission President and CEO Frank Muir. "It confuses women by excluding potatoes. They may think, 'Well, maybe I shouldn't be feeding potatoes to my kids,' even though potatoes are loaded with vitamin C and potassium."
Travis Blacker, executive director of the Idaho Grower Shippers Association, considers the recent progress with WIC and toward expanding trade for fresh potatoes into all of Mexico to be welcome news at a time when fresh prices have been on the decline.
John Keeling, executive vice president and CEO of National Potato Council, emphasized the USDA's own 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend increased consumption of starchy vegetables by women and young children to meet their supply of essential nutrients.
"While we are encouraged by this congressional action, (Agriculture) Secretary (Tom) Vilsack should immediately reverse the regulatory course and allow WIC participants to make their own nutritional choices for their families," Keeling said.
Based on the potato's exclusion from WIC, Washington State Potato Commission Executive Director Chris Voigt conducted a personal demonstration about a year and a half ago to evidence the health benefits of potatoes. For 60 days, he ate nothing but plain potatoes. He lost 21 pounds, his cholesterol dropped 67 points and his blood sugar levels declined.
"Really the market share in WIC isn't the issue for us. If you tell the public you can eat any fruit or vegetable you want except for potatoes, that sends a clear message from the USDA that potatoes are not healthy, and that is so far from the truth," Voigt said.
SOURCE: John O'Connell, Capital Press