Farm Bill Study May Help Potato Industry

Published online: Nov 20, 2013
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The potato industry and lawmakers have another card up their sleeve in their effort to protect the starchy vegetables from those who seek to remove them from federal nutrition programs: a study inserted in the House's version of the farm bill that could be used to promote their healthful qualities.

The single paragraph is easy to miss in the 701-page House farm bill, tucked away in Section 4051 on Page 388. It would require the Department of Agriculture to "conduct a review of the economic and public health benefits of white potatoes on low-income families who are determined to be at nutritional risk" and report the findings to both the House and Senate Agriculture Committees no less than one year after the date of the law's enactment.

The provision, one of countless now being debated as the 41 House and Senate conferees attempt to agree on a uniform bill, first surfaced inside a stand-alone nutrition title that House Republicans drafted in September as part of an effort to dramatically cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. It survived multiple legislative iterations before the nutrition bill ultimately was remerged with the House's version of the farm bill (H.R. 361) in late September.

Similar language does not exist in the Senate farm bill.

To the untrained eye, Section 4051, referred to simply as the "Review of Public Health Benefits of White Potatoes," is just another potentially legislatively mandated study. But it's much more important than that to the National Potato Council, which says it is needed to fight against nutritionists who've been using outdated science in an effort to exclude potatoes and potato products from USDA programs intended to feed needy school kids as well as pregnant women, infants and children.

The potato industry's biggest nemesis, in fact, is the Institute of Medicine, which spent a year reviewing the nutritional needs of U.S. children before issuing a report in 2009 that is often used against potatoes. IOM reported that children eat about only 40 percent of what the government recommends they consume-and 29 percent of that amount comes from potatoes, most of them fried. By contrast, children get less than 20 percent of their daily recommended intake of dark green vegetables, orange vegetables and legumes (dried beans).

If children ate fewer potatoes, they would eat more of these other vegetables, the IOM reasons.

In a way, the potato industry is a victim of its own success, says Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

"People are already eating enough potatoes," she says. "They need a lot more vegetables in their diet-pretty much everything but potatoes. . The potato industry just won't let this go."

However, the industry counters that potatoes are an inexpensive source of healthful and cheap food, rich in vitamin C and containing zero fat. Potatoes contain more potassium than bananas, spinach and broccoli, the industry shouts back.

The potato industry has been squaring off with nutritionists for close to a decade over whether its products should be provided in federal nutrition programs, and have been artful in enlisting lawmakers to its cause.

The industry scored a victory in 2011, when Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.) got an amendment inserted in a 2012 appropriations bill that blocked the USDA from limiting the use of potatoes in school lunches. In a move that was framed by some media outlets as an attack on tater tots, the USDA was prepared to cap the amount of potatoes and other starchy vegetables to one cup per week and instead promote a wider variety of vegetables, especially dark green and orange varieties.

But the potato industry also still smarts from USDA's decision two years earlier to publish an interim rule allowing pregnant women and mothers of children under 5 to buy fresh fruits and vegetables, excluding potatoes, as part of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children program. A final rule remains under review at the White House Office of Management and Budget.

The industry rallied lawmakers to its support on that occasion, too, getting 93 House members to sign on to a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack to "seriously reconsider the ban on the purchase of fresh white potatoes." The letter, originating from Reps. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) and Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), told Vilsack, "Ensuring that fresh white potatoes qualify for WIC will help your agency develop and implement a federal nutrition program that truly promotes the consumption of healthy fruits and vegetables by adults and children alike."

USDA largely based its position on the potato, then around another opinion (WIC Food Packages: Time for a Change) rendered by the IOM, in 2005, in which it similarly concluded that "most Americans do not need encouragement to consume the maximum recommendation of one serving of potatoes per day."

WIC, a USDA spokesperson explained to Politico, "is a prescriptive program designed to fill nutritional gaps in the diets of low-income, pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, infants and young children. . Because the IOM determined that the target population met or exceeded recommended consumption of white potatoes, they recommended against supplementing these foods through WIC."

But Mark Szymanski, the National Potato Council's director of public relations, instead describes its ongoing battle as a "perception problem."

"When women in the WIC program walk into a grocery story and get told by the store manager that they can't buy potatoes because they aren't a vegetable, we have a problem," he says.

USDA does allow WIC recipients to buy some potatoes from farmers' markets under a provision called Farmers' Market Nutrition Program. But that only serves to add to the frustration, Szymanski says.

"Why only farmers' markets and not stores?" he asks. "A potato is a potato."