NPC Lobbies for Potatoes

Growers seek to reverse ban on "white" potatoes

Published online: Jan 21, 2014
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Tucked into the 1,582-page 2014 spending bill passed by Congress this week are 85 words that aspire to end the government's decade-long war on the potato.

The language is aimed at reversing a ban on white potato purchases by 8.7 million monthly participants in the USDA's Women, Infants and Children (WIC) food program. "White potatoes," in this case, refers to all potatoes-except the sweet version-no matter their skin or flesh color.

To the nation's potato growers and processors, it is about much more. Years of low-carb, whole-grain, antioxidant trends have taken a toll on the humble white potato, whose very color has come to symbolize empty calories: Americans each put away more than 100 pounds of potatoes a year, but the tonnage has fallen steadily over the past decade. The bill language strikes a blow for reversing "general animosity" toward the spud, said John Keeling, chief executive of the National Potato Council, which leads the pro-potato charge in the capital.

Grown first in Peru, then cultivated worldwide, potatoes fueled the rise of Ireland and helped build America, Mr. Keeling said. "They are not the henchmen of evil."

Government dietitians have had their eyes on potatoes for years. In its dietary guidelines, the Agriculture Department lists baked white and sweet potatoes as good sources of potassium and vitamin C. In 2005, it for the first time offered recommendations on how many starchy vegetable servings Americans should eat. About the same time, a department-commissioned study titled "WIC Food Packages: Time for a Change," recommended recipients be allowed to use program vouchers to choose a full range of fresh vegetables-except white potatoes.

The stated reason: Low-income people already eat plenty of them.

The potato people went nuts, given the implication that potatoes are not only unhealthy, but aren't really vegetables.

Sweet potatoes and yams, white-potato growers' arch rivals, remain in the Agriculture Department's good graces.

Sure, sweet potatoes are trendy now, Mr. Keeling said, but they possess the same nutrients as white potatoes, "except for beta carotene, which we get so much of we're all turning orange." What's more, he added, while white potatoes are grown in 36 states and eaten every day, everywhere, sweet potatoes are "a Bubba-driven industry" confined to a handful of Southern states.

Not exactly true, said Mavis Finger, sweet-potato specialist at Louisiana State University: "California is a huge producer," she said, ranking third in the nation after North Carolina and Mississippi. Louisiana is fourth. "As we become more health conscious as consumers, the industry is growing."

The potato mashup is just the latest politics-slathered food fracas. Over the past generation, the federal government has debated whether ketchup is a vegetable, whether pizza fights cancer and whether beer is a good source of fiber.

Across L Street from the National Potato Council's downtown Washington headquarters is the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group, and its director for nutrition policy, Margo Wootan. This week, as the spending bill gained traction, Dr. Wootan authored an email campaign urging Congress not to interfere with scientists designing federal nutrition programs.

"Don't get us wrong, we like potatoes just fine," read one of her entreaties, "but, according to the Institute of Medicine, white potatoes.are already the most consumed vegetable (frequently as french fries)."

French fries, Mr. Keeling and his members said, are unfairly demonized.

"All we've ever said about french fries is they're something people like, they do have a strong nutrition content that's not affected by the cooking process and the processors have worked on reducing the levels of calories and fats," he said. "French fries can be a very, very valuable part of people's diets."

Responds Dr. Wootan: "I'm a scientist and John isn't, so my opinion trumps his on this one."

Mr. Keeling is a veteran food-industry lobbyist whose family owned Texas cattle and cotton operations. He pointed out he was born in the same year, 1952, as Mr. Potato Head. Back in the day, Mr. Potato's body was built on a real potato; now that's no longer recommended.

In 2011, the Agriculture Department issued a proposal to ban starchy vegetables from breakfasts in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs, and limit them at lunch. The potato council worked with friendly legislators on Capitol Hill, touting data from the industry-funded Alliance for Potato Research and Education showing french fries deliver nearly five times more potassium per serving than apples.

After months of lobbying, Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Democratic Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado sowed language into a 2012 agricultural appropriations bill banning the use of department funds to limit vegetable servings in school meal programs.

But the Agriculture Department remained dug in on the anti-potato rule in the $6.5 billion WIC program. The words "'except for potatoes' have been a very expensive three words for us," Mr. Keeling said.

Potato growers have raised the WIC issue in Congress at every annual D.C. lobbying "fly-in" since 2008. In 2012, some 100 members of Congress signed a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, demanding he "carefully reconsider the decision to exclude white potatoes."

Success of sorts has arrived in the 2014 spending legislation, in a paragraph that instructs the Agriculture Department to include all varieties of vegetables in the WIC voucher program. That means potatoes, too. Under the bill, Mr. Vilsack would have to change the provision banning white potatoes from the WIC program. If his department declines to do so, it has to submit a report to Congress explaining why within 15 days.

The provision was put into the bill by Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho.

"USDA takes this language seriously and will conduct the evaluation expected by Congress," said Agriculture Department Nutrition Programs spokeswoman Brooke Hardison.

The pro-potato edict isn't binding, and it won't stem the rise of the yam, but it'll buy the industry some time, Mr. Keeling said.

"This is not a potato issue," he said. "It's a popularity contest.and Washington has done us wrong."

Source: The Wall Street Journal