WASHINGTON, D.C. — Twenty lawmakers from both parties signed onto a letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack late last week, urging the federal agency to make white potatoes available to the Women, Infants and Childrens program.
The WIC program is the government’s premier nutrition program for pregnant mothers and their infants. It provides monthly vouchers and specifies which foods can be bought with the funds. 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.
Twenty senators, including U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, signed the May 2 letter. The document states that the lawmakers are troubled by the department’s decision to exclude fresh white potatoes from the final rule amending the food packages in the Special Nutrition Program for the WIC program.
Since 2009, the USDA has banned the purchase of fresh white potatoes with WIC funds. The agency relied on recommendations from the Institute of Medicine, which found in a 2005 study that starches, and white potatoes in particular, are already widely eaten and thus don’t need any support from the program.
White potatoes are the only item of fresh produce that WIC recipients are not allowed to purchase. Sweet potatoes and yams are allowed.
“Including white potatoes in the WIC food packages would not contribute toward meeting the nutritional needs of the WIC population and would not support the goal of expanding the types and varieties of fruits and vegetables available to program participants, as recommended by the IOM,” the USDA wrote in the revised rules released in March.
In the letter to Vilsack, however, the senators state that the data was flawed and outdated and did not support the ban.
“Unfathomably, the USDA did not base its final rule for WIC food packages on the most recent dietary guidelines, which reflect the latest science,” they wrote.
Kevin Kelley, a spokesman for Collins, said Wednesday afternoon that the gathering support of senators is significant because several are members of the appropriations committee and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan, is the chair of the agriculture, nutrition and forestry committee.
“They are important people to have on your side in this case,” he said.
The industry has struggled to get recognition for the health benefits of the potato since the low-carb craze began more than a decade ago.
With the help of members of the state’s congressional delegation, the industry fought back against a USDA provision in 2011 that would have limited servings of white potatoes in the National School Lunch Program and banned the vegetable from the National School Breakfast Program altogether.
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. The baked potato also is cholesterol-free, fat-free and sodium-free.
Officials with the Maine Potato Board have touted those benefits and the numerous healthy ways that one can prepare a potato without frying it to make french fries or potato chips.
The Senate Appropriations Committee will look at the matter again on May 22 while considering the fiscal 2015 budget for the Agriculture Department.
Others who signed on to the letter to Vilsack included Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colorado; Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon; Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Nebraska; and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington.