While most of Washington, D.C., remains focused on the farm bill, this summer we have seen considerable congressional action on an issue that is near and dear to the hearts of potato growers: getting fresh white potatoes into the WIC program along with ALL other fruits and vegetables.
USDA's Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children program, or WIC, provides additional nutrition to low-income pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, as well as to their children up to age five. A few years ago, the program was revised to allow participants to purchase any fresh fruit and vegetable in the produce aisle, except for fresh white potatoes.
When the change was announced, those of us in the potato industry scratched our heads at the fresh potato exclusion. After all, one medium baked potato provides women more than 20 percent of their recommended daily value of potassium and more than 10 percent of their dietary fiber needs. To top it off, that one potato provides more than 10 percent of the folate that pregnant women need for the production and maintenance of new fetal cells.
Despite their clear nutritional benefits, USDA argued that WIC participants already eat "too many" potatoes-as if you can ever eat too much of a good thing!-and, therefore, potatoes do not need to be included in the supplemental food program. However, it turns out that their "too many" argument does not stand up to the facts.
The Alliance for Potato Research and Education looked at publically available data and found that women participating in the WIC program consumed only 2.1 percent of their total calories from fresh white potatoes, while their non-WIC peers took in 2.4 percent of their calories from fresh white potatoes. Although slight, this difference shows that WIC participants are not over-consuming potatoes compared to non-participants. It also shows that neither group is consuming potatoes in amounts that limit the consumption of other fruits and vegetables in their diets.
Over the years, the National Potato Council and our partners in the states have implored USDA to reconsider its unfounded fresh potato bias. Yet, time and again, we've been given the cold shoulder.
However, recent action on Capitol Hill has given us new hope.
On two separate fronts, members of Congress from both sides of the aisle have called on USDA to end its ban on fresh white potatoes and allow nutritionally at-risk mothers and children to purchase our product using WIC vouchers.
On June 19, Congressman Mike Simpson from Idaho offered an amendment to the agriculture appropriations bill for fiscal year 2013 that would prohibit USDA from using funds to exclude the eligibility of any fresh vegetable (including potatoes) from the WIC program. The amendment was approved by the House Appropriations Committee by voice vote and (as of press time) is waiting to be heard on the House floor.
Then on July 2, Congressman Greg Walden, a Republican from Oregon, joined Congressman Gregory Meeks, a Democrat from New York City, in announcing the release of a bipartisan letter calling on USDA Secretary Vilsack to reverse his department's decision to ban fresh, white potatoes from the WIC program. The letter was signed by a total of 93 members representing districts ranging from small farming communities to large inner cities. Not only were those members concerned about WIC participants missing out on the nutritional benefits of potatoes, they wrote that excluding potatoes from the program "sends the wrong message to low-income WIC participating mothers and suggests a `government-knows-best' mentality inconsistent with individual choice and promotion of self-responsibility."
We at the National Potato Council appreciate the leadership shown by Reps. Simpson, Walden and Meeks, and all the members willing to raise the profile of this important issue. NPC is encouraged by these congressional actions and continues to call on Secretary Vilsack to immediately reverse USDA's regulatory course and allow WIC participants to make their own nutritional choices for their families.