Gov. Otter blasts USDA on WIC spud exclusion
By John O’Connell
SUN VALLEY, Idaho — Idaho Gov. Butch Otter blasted USDA during a June 26 address to national potato growers for unilaterally continuing a ban on fresh, white potatoes in the federal Women, Infants and Children nutrition program, contrary to the wishes of Congress.
The Republican governor referenced language included in the federal appropriations bill passed last winter indicating it’s the “sense of Congress” that USDA should reverse its ban on spuds in WIC. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, spearheaded the advisory legislation, with support from other potato-friendly lawmakers, after the industry failed to change the policy through the new farm bill.
Regardless, the final rules revising WIC packages were approved in March with the potato exclusion still in place, though USDA agreed to ask the Institute of Medicine to commence a scientific WIC foods review in 2015, a year ahead of schedule.
Otter also took First Lady Michelle Obama to task for lobbying against potatoes in WIC. She’s made childhood nutrition her priority, and her Let’s Move! initiative seeks to “solve the challenge of childhood obesity within a generation.”
“Mike Simpson got an amendment to put potatoes back on WIC, and apparently Michelle Obama has a phone and a pen because USDA is not paying any attention to what the amendment says,” Otter said. “I don’t know where they learned about a republican form of a constitutional government, but the rule of law is strong. It should be strong.”
The governor also voiced his optimism that fresh potatoes will eventually be included in the program.
“The game is not over with yet, and I am very confident that Mike will get his way and we will have our day to prove how nutritious and how beneficial potatoes can be on that WIC line,” Otter said.
Sixty-seven House members signed a letter supporting spuds in WIC after the final rules were published, and 20 senators subsequently signed a similar letter. IOM guidelines have found the target WIC population already consumes enough potatoes.
“We’re an industry that pound for pound and acre for acre produces more nutrients than any other crop,” Otter told growers.
Frank Muir, president and CEO of the Idaho Potato Commission, said potatoes are perfect to meet the nutritional needs of the more than 9.7 million low-income pregnant or nursing women and their young children receiving WIC.
Muir emphasized that spuds are high in fiber and potassium, which USDA concludes WIC participants lack in their diets. Muir said spuds are also high in vitamin C and Folate, a crucial vitamin that helps the body synthesize and repair DNA and is especially important for the health of breast-feeding mothers.
Muir argues an IOM review of WIC-approved foods is not necessary because USDA already has the necessary nutrition data on its own food labels.
“The exclusion of potatoes from WIC is not based on any scientific logic in any shape or form,” Muir said. “When opponents are really pushed, they come down to, ‘Well, people already eat enough potatoes.’ That’s not science. That’s opinion.”