Yet another expert study, this time by the Institutes of Medicine, has recommended that the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) federal nutrition program include the affordable, healthy, and nutritious fresh white potato. But the BDN’s Feb. 6 editorial on this issue criticizes my role in pushing the U. S. Department of Agriculture to include potatoes — the only vegetable or fruit excluded from the program. Indeed, in another critical editorial last year, the BDN actually asserted: “The likelihood that the potato provision won’t pass — at least this year — could be good news for Maine families who rely on WIC.” The BDN got it wrong on all fronts. How could it be good news for low-income Maine families to be denied access through the WIC program to a wholesome, healthy fresh vegetable? And contrary to the editorial’s prediction, my amendment to include the potato in the WIC program did, in fact, pass last year with overwhelming support and was included in the final law.
My position throughout the years-long debate over the exclusions and restrictions on the nutrition-packed white potato in federal food programs, such as WIC, has been that USDA’s decision was based upon flawed and outdated science. In 2010, the USDA itself issued updated dietary guidelines indicating that Americans needed to eat more foods with potassium and fiber and were not consuming enough of a category of vegetables that included fresh white potatoes. Yet, for years USDA continued its unwarranted attempt to discourage families from consuming potatoes, contradicting its own dietary guidelines.
In 2011, I led the successful fight to overturn a misguided USDA rule that would have strictly limited servings of white potatoes in the School Lunch Program and would have banned potatoes altogether from the School Breakfast Program. Our victory was achieved not by uninformed congressional pressure, but with the expertise provided by food scientists and school-nutrition experts.
Similarly, USDA’s exclusion of the white potato from the foods that can be purchased with WIC vouchers has been based upon outdated science. That exclusion continued because USDA inexplicably used the old 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which set a low recommended level for this class of vegetables. The newer, scientifically updated 2010 guidelines recognize the high nutritional content and increased the recommended levels for these vegetables. But USDA persisted in its exclusion of potatoes from the WIC program for years until I offered a successful amendment to allow families to use WIC vouchers to purchase fresh potatoes and to require a review of the WIC food package, including the nutritional value of all vegetables. Sure enough, the Feb. 3 report by the IOM concludes that there is no justification for excluding white potatoes from the WIC program. The study confirmed that potatoes are an excellent source of potassium, fiber, Vitamin B6 and Vitamin C.
It is perplexing that the BDN is not troubled by the fact that for four years after USDA’s own guidelines called for greater consumption of starchy vegetables, including potatoes, the department stubbornly fought all efforts to include potatoes, while allowing the purchase of vegetables like iceberg lettuce with far less nutritional value. It took a change in the law to require USDA to align WIC with current nutritional findings.
The editorial lambastes “persistent congressional intervention … before the scientific process played out.” Does this newspaper really believe that my amendment would have won the support of 29 of the 30 members of the Appropriations Committee last year had it not been based on sound research?
Oversight of federal agencies is among the most essential implied powers of Congress in our Constitution. The BDN editorial essentially argues that Congress should abdicate its responsibility in this case. The problem is, without this oversight — holding federal agencies accountable for their policies and effectiveness as well as their spending — our system of checks and balances would be meaningless.
All members of Congress have an obligation to represent the people of their districts and their states. I will never shirk my duty to try to ensure that the concerns of Maine people — whether in agriculture, forestry, fisheries, shipbuilding, heating and food assistance, conservation, or any other matter — are treated fairly and effectively by federal agencies. And I am confident that Maine people understand the difference between unwarranted intervention and effective oversight to achieve common-sense results.
Susan Collins, a Republican, represents Maine in the U.S. Senate.