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Women And Children Caught In Middle Of Potato War

Jun 19, 2013
Originally published on June 19, 2013 1:01 pm

We didn't plan it, but somehow, it has turned into Potato Week here at The Salt. The latest twist in the tater tales takes us to Capitol Hill.

Americans love to pile on the potatoes – we consumed a whopping 112 pounds per capita last year. But lately, the potato industry has been playing the part of jilted lover and taking its heartache to Congress.

According to the National Potato Council, the U.S. Department of Agriculture "discriminates" against fresh, white potatoes.

Huh?

Back in 2007, the USDA ruled that women and children enrolled in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, known as WIC, couldn't buy potatoes with the program's vouchers. Instead, the nearly 9 million WIC participants, who have to be poor and at risk of under- or malnutrition to enroll in the program, are given a monthly benefit ($10 for women and $6 for children) to buy any fruit or vegetable except white potatoes.

This month, industry groups persuaded some members of the House Appropriations Committee to introduce an amendment to change that — by permitting states the option to include potatoes in their WIC programs. The potato lobby is also hoping to change the final WIC rule on what foods are eligible for the WIC benefit. USDA is taking comments on it until June 29.

"There is an inconsistency with the program, and it creates a misperception that the potato doesn't have nutritional value," Mark Szymanski, spokesman for the National Potato Council, tells The Salt. Potatoes, and especially potato skins, are loaded with nutrients like Vitamin C, potassium and antioxidants. And, Szymanski adds, the most recent USDA Dietary Guidelines recommend that women and children increase their consumption of starchy vegetables.

So why not add potatoes to the WIC program?

According to WIC advocates, potatoes don't belong in the program because a scientific panel, the Institute of Medicine, found in 2005 that Americans already consume more than enough starchy vegetables.

"The point of the supplementation program is to get our population to consume more leafy green, red, and orange fruits and vegetables because they're lacking in their diet," says Douglas Greenaway, president and CEO of the National WIC Association. "And it makes sense that these food [rules] are driven by science and not by politics."

Also, it's not as though people in WIC can't or don't eat potatoes.

"People are still buying them with their own money," says Geraldine Henchy, director of nutrition policy for the Food Research and Action Center, a group that works closely with people in food assistance programs like WIC. "We aren't hearing from them that they have a potato access problem. They can get potatoes."

Instead, Henchy argues that the potato industry's current campaign to change the USDA rule is just another one of its attempts to circumvent the scientific process that determines which foods should be allowed in publicly funded food assistance programs.

Potato industry groups were able to influence the updating of the school lunch program's nutritional standards in 2012, Henchy says. At first, the USDA wanted to limit the amount of potatoes in school lunches and mandate no more than two servings a week. But the industry argued the spud was being unfairly excluded. And it found friends in Congress to ensure that french fries would remain a staple in the school cafeteria.

"They were emboldened by that win to try to do something on WIC," says Henchy. "So ultimately, this isn't just a potato war. It's about open, transparent processes versus people who have political clout and money to direct nutrition policy through veiled amendments."

The industry, however, maintains that it's about restoring the good image of the potato. "This policy impacts potato growers, but it's not a financial issue for us," says Szymanski. "The problem is that the government is saying one class of vegetables is less important than another."

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