WIC program continues to snub spuds, Maine delegation pushes back against exclusion

Sen. Susan Collins
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Sen. Susan Collins
Posted Feb. 28, 2014, at 6:18 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 28, 2014, at 9:42 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Although a major overhaul of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Women, Infants and Children program unveiled Friday expands low-income families’ access to produce and whole grains, the white potato continues to be only fresh fruit or vegetable excluded from the list of approved foods.

The exclusion of potatoes from the USDA rule went into effect in December 2009 and is based on recommendations of the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans report, according to published reports.

The decision is drawing the ire of elected officials and others from Maine and other potato-producing states.

As Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, sees it, the problem with the WIC rule is that it sends a message to Americans that potatoes are not nutritious.

“USDA’s decision ought to be driven by nutritional facts and food science. In that kind of review, the fresh, white potato wins, hands down,” Collins said Friday in a joint statement with Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colorado.

The senators have fought for years to urge the U.S. Department of Agriculture to update its antiquated rules based on outdated, decades-old consumption data. Most recently, they championed an amendment to the 2013 Farm Bill to allow families using the WIC program to obtain all fresh vegetables, including potatoes.

“The potato has more potassium than bananas, a food commonly associated with this nutrient which is important for pregnant women and new mothers. Potatoes are cholesterol-free, fat-free and sodium-free and can be served in countless healthy ways,” Collins said, adding that a medium baked potato contains 15 percent of the daily recommended value of dietary fiber, 27 percent of the daily recommended value for Vitamin B6 and 28 percent of the daily recommended value of Vitamin C.

“It also defies logic that WIC participants may purchase fresh white potatoes sold at a farmers’ market but may not purchase fresh white potatoes sold in grocery stores,” she said. “Potatoes are an affordable and nutrient-dense food that all WIC participants should be able to purchase regardless of the merchant.”

“Furthermore, USDA’s decision is based on recommendations of the 2005 [Dietary Guidelines for Americans, or DGA] report, which used consumption data that was nearly 20 years old. It is disappointing that USDA ignored Congress’ intent that it bring the USDA rule for the WIC food package in line to reflect the most recent 2010 DGA,” said Collins, who in 2011 successfully fought a USDA proposal that would have limited servings of certain vegetables — including white potatoes, green peas, lima beans and corn — in the National School Lunch Program and that would have banned these vegetables from the National School Breakfast Program altogether.

“I am extremely disappointed that, despite overwhelming evidence showing the nutritional benefits of white potatoes, USDA has decided to continue its exclusion of fresh potatoes from the WIC program,” Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said in a news release. “WIC is designed to provide critical nutritional support to young mothers and their children by giving them access to fruits and vegetables … It is shortsighted and misguided to exclude them from the program particularly given that less healthy options — like sugarcane — are included.”

U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud also questioned the potato ban.

“It is mystifying to me that despite the fact that USDA’s own 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that women eat 5 cups of starchy vegetables per week and children up to age 5 eat up to 2 cups of starchy vegetables per week, USDA still chose to exclude the nutrient-rich white potato, which contains potassium, fiber, Vitamin C, calcium and protein from the WIC guideline,” Michaud wrote Friday in in a letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

Michaud added that Maine’s potato farmers are invested in growing the finest quality potatoes and requested an explanation for their exclusion from this important federal nutrition program.

Tim Hobbs, director of development and grower relations for the Maine Potato Board, provide the following statement from the National Potato Council on the potato ban:

“We are disappointed that USDA has chosen to ignore the latest nutritional science and consumption data in its final WIC rule. When USDA revised the WIC program to include all fresh fruits and vegetables — except fresh white potatoes — it relied on an IOM report that looked at consumption data from the mid-1990s.

“However, much has changed over the past two decades, and the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention consumption data from its National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey demonstrate that today’s women and children are falling well short of their consumption targets for starchy vegetables,” the council said.

“In its final WIC rule, USDA failed to incorporate its own nutritional recommendations in the 2010 [DGA] that calls for Americans to eat more starchy vegetables, including white potatoes,” the statement continued.

“Including economical fresh white potatoes would supplement the diets of WIC participants with two of the four ‘nutrients of concern’ — potassium and dietary fiber. The science clearly justifies including nutritionally rich fresh white potatoes in the WIC basket, and we will continue to urge USDA to reverse its course and restore science to the WIC program.”

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