Over the past few years, members of Congress and their staff who have taken a close look at this issue have urged USDA to reverse its policy that prevents WIC participants from buying fresh potatoes with their program vouchers.
The recent omnibus appropriations bill included report language that sends a clear message to USDA that it is obligated to base nutrition policy on the latest nutritional science, which calls for an increase in starchy vegetable consumption for all Americans, including mothers and children participating in the WIC program.
Some have argued that an Institute of Medicine (IOM) report, WIC Food Packages: Time for a Change, justifies the program's potato exclusion. However, that 2005 IOM report was based on now outdated nutritional guidelines as well as consumption data from the mid-1990s.
The IOM report compared the consumption targets recommended by the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) to food intake data from the 1994-96 USDA report, Continuing Survey of Food Intakes by Individuals. While WIC participants may have met their starchy vegetable targets at the time, their consumption patterns have not kept up with the latest nutritional recommendations.
Since the proposed WIC rule was released in 2007, USDA issued its 2010 DGA, which increased the starchy vegetable consumption recommendations. The 2010 DGA recommends:
* Five cups of starchy vegetables per week for women with a daily caloric intake of 2,000 calories (an increase of two cups per week from the 2005 DGA); and,
* Up to four cups of starchy vegetables per week for children up to age five with a recommended daily caloric intake of up to 1,600 calories (an increase of 1½ cups per week from the 2005 DGA).
Unfortunately, despite government recommendations to increase the consumption of starchy vegetables, women and children-including those in the WIC program-are consuming fewer vegetables, not more. According to an analysis of the most recent publically available 2009-10 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) data, women in the 19-30 age group consumed only 2.4 cups of starchy vegetables per week, meeting less than half of the 2010 DGA-recommended intake for women with a 2,000 calorie diet.
The diets of both male and female children also fell short of the 2010 DGA recommendations. For the 2-4 age group, girls consumed 0.6 cups per week less than the maximum recommendations for starchy vegetable consumption, while boys consumed 1.4 cups less.
The WIC food package is designed to provide supplemental nutrition to make up for deficiencies in the diets of participants. Adding nutrient-dense fresh potatoes to the program would do just that by helping WIC women and children supplement their diets by increasing their intake of potassium and dietary fiber - two of the four "nutrients of concern" identified by USDA.
One medium white potato is considered an "excellent source" of potassium (i.e., providing more than 20% of the Daily Value (DV)) and a "good source" of dietary fiber (providing more than 10% of the DV). In addition, potatoes retain most, if not all, of these two shortfall nutrients during common preparation methods.
There is no scientific rationale for discouraging the consumption of a vegetable that contains essential shortfall nutrients just because they may be popular. It is true that potatoes are the most popular vegetable consumed by WIC participants and by the public at large, but popularity alone does not justify a nutrient-rich vegetable's exclusion from a federal nutrition program. Just because bananas are a frequently purchased fruit, no one argues that people are eating "too many."
At $0.19 per one cup serving, white potatoes are one of the most economical vegetables or fruits at delivering an entire day's recommended intake of potassium (at a cost of $1.51 for the recommended 4,700 milligrams per day) and dietary fiber (at a cost of $1.90 for the recommended 28 grams per day) to women. Bananas are comparable to potatoes in the popularity and the amount of potassium and fiber delivered per dollar, yet USDA promotes one and bans another in the WIC program.
In 2010, 19 U.S. Senators, and in 2012, 93 members of the House-representing both urban and rural districts-signed letters asking Secretary Vilsack to revise the WIC rule to reflect USDA's own dietary recommendations. To date, the Secretary has taken no actions to alter the regulations.
The recent congressional report language merely requires USDA to acknowledge and follow the current nutritional science, which calls for an increase in the consumption of starchy vegetables. With the vast majority of Americans failing to meet their nutritional targets, USDA should focus on encouraging the consumption of all fresh fruits and vegetables, instead of relying on old data and obsolete recommendations to rationalize a ban on nutrient-rich potatoes.