ORONO, Maine — As the state’s congressional delegation and leaders in Maine’s potato industry are putting more pressure on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to make changes to a federal food program, a food science and human nutrition professor from the University of Maine has stepped forward to offer science-based evidence in support of including potatoes with other fruits and vegetables offered as part of the Women, Infants and Children program.
Mary Ellen Camire has spent the past 21 years researching potatoes, dietary supplements and other foods, and she conducts nutritional evaluation of potato varieties with UMaine Cooperative Extension specialists.
Carmire said Wednesday that the justification for excluding white potatoes from the WIC program “just isn’t there.”
“It is what you do to a potato that makes it bad for you,” she said. “A plain baked potato is a great source of nutrients like potassium and vitamin C. But if you load it with butter and cheese and bacon, it is no longer so healthy.”
The WIC program makes qualifying foods available for low-income and nutritionally at-risk pregnant women and their infants and children. The USDA is in the process of reviewing WIC program rule changes. In late 2007, the USDA revised the program to include fresh fruits and vegetables for the first time. In the past, WIC recipients have received items such as milk, eggs, cheese, cereal and peanut butter. Under the program, clients also can buy soy beverages, organic milk, fresh fruits and vegetables, except potatoes.
Potatoes were excluded when the rules were changed in 2007 largely because the USDA determined that most people already eat enough of the vegetable, according to the USDA’s website. The rule change only applies to white potatoes. Sweet potatoes and yams are allowed.
U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, were part of a bipartisan group of 19 senators who wrote recently to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack asking him to include potatoes with other fruits and vegetables offered as part of the federal WIC program.
The senators pointed out that during a public comment period on program rules, more than 4,300 comments were submitted, including 231 specifically regarding potatoes. Of those comments, 229 were supportive of including potatoes in the WIC program. Forty-three percent of those comments came from WIC program manag-ers and staff.
In their letter, the senators said exclusion of potatoes, which is the only fruit or vegetable to be excluded, “sends a message to WIC participants that the U.S. Department of Agriculture believes potatoes are not healthy.”
Additional members of the state’s congressional delegation also are speaking out on the issue, and the Presque Isle-based Maine Potato Board is following the issue closely.
Camire began a scientific review of the health benefits of potatoes in 2008, the International Year of the Potato.
Potatoes, she argued in a recent paper on her research for the journal Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, are a carbohydrate-rich, energy-providing food with little fat. Potatoes are particularly high in vitamin C and are a good source of several B vitamins and potassium, Camire added. The skins provide substantial dietary fiber, and many compounds in potatoes, particularly pigmented colored potatoes, contribute to antioxidant activity.
“Potatoes also contain a starch that is easily digestible,” Camire explained. “Because it is easier to digest potato starch, it makes it easier for children who eat them to absorb energy.”
Camire also pointed out that women who take part in the WIC program often are economically disadvantaged and have food security issues.
“You can feed a family very easily on a bag of potatoes,” she said Wednesday. “It is a disservice to people in the program and to the farmers to not include potatoes in the WIC program.”
Don Flannery, executive director of the Maine Potato Board, said during a recent interview that people often think of items such as french fries and potato chips when they think of potatoes instead of focusing on the potato itself.
One medium-size baked potato has just 110 calories and provides 620 milligrams of potassium if eaten with the skin, according to figures from the Maine Potato Board. It also contains more vitamin C than one medium tomato.
The potato industry launched an aggressive campaign several years ago to point out the health benefits of the product.
Camire said the industry could do more to get the message out about the vitamins and nutrients in potatoes. She said they could point out research about the easily digestible starch in potatoes, and that potatoes are a less sugary alternative to fruit and fruit juices for vitamin C.
Camire said she intends to share her research with the state’s congressional delegation.
Ed Gilman, spokesman for Rep. Mike Michaud, said Wednesday the congressman joined 22 of his colleagues from around the country in sending a bipartisan letter of concern to Vilsack on the issue. He said Michaud also is encouraging Mainers to write letters and e-mails to him about this issue and its impact on their lives and communities. Michaud will share those stories with the USDA in order to continue to press the case.
Michaud noted in a prepared statement that while the public comment period for the interim rule to include fruits and vegetables in WIC recently closed, it is not the last word on the issue. He said that under federal rulemaking procedures, the interim rule period allows the agency to continue receiving public comment before putting out a final rule.
Willy Ritch, communications director for Rep. Chellie Pingree, said Wednesday that Pingree also encourages the USDA to reconsider its decision.
The USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service is expected to enact a final rule in February 2011.