WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. potato industry leaders are optimistic about Congress’s current plan to force USDA to include fresh, white potatoes in the federal Women, Infants and Children nutrition program.
The House Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittee approved a Fiscal Year 2015 agricultural appropriations bill May 20 that restricts funding to exclude the eligibility of any fresh vegetables from WIC, except those with added sugars, fats and oils. The bill will move next to the full House Appropriations Committee.
A Senate Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittee vote was scheduled for May 22, with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, expected to introduce similar WIC language in an amendment.
White potatoes are the only fresh fruit or vegetable barred from WIC, which provides food vouchers to more than 9.7 million low-income pregnant or nursing women and their young children.
“We have tremendous industry support, and we have support from both sides of the aisle,” National Potato Council spokesman Mark Szymanski said. “We’re optimistic we have the most support we’ve ever had to get this done.”
After failing to force fresh spuds in WIC through the new farm bill, potato-friendly lawmakers added language to a federal appropriations bill that passed last winter expressing Congress’s support of the policy change.
But a USDA final rule approved in March revising WIC food packages retained the prohibition.
Sixty-seven House members responded with a letter opposing the continued exclusion of fresh spuds in WIC. Earlier this month, 20 senators wrote USDA expressing similar frustrations.
To win over more lawmakers, NPC has organized a grower letter-writing campaign, which has resulted in more than 1,100 letters to Congress. Growers may link to an online form letter, which may be customized and provides contacts to lawmakers, at www.votervoice.net/NPC/Campaign/36064/Respond. The letter emphasizes that most Americans don’t eat enough starchy vegetables, according to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines.
It reads: “By banning potatoes from the WIC program, I am concerned the federal government is sending the wrong message that potatoes are somehow unhealthy and deserve to be left out of a major nutrition program, which supports 51 percent of infants born in the U.S.”
Oakley, Idaho farmer and NPC President Randy Hardy argues the latest science supports the potato industry, while WIC rules were based on Institute of Medicine consumption data from the mid-1990s.
“It sounds like this has a good chance. We thought we had a good chance in the farm bill, too, but it disappeared,” Hardy said. “It’s hard to believe, but there’s a lot of opposition.”
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., mentioned the WIC provision among the reasons why she voted against the funding bill in the House Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittee markup.
“Once again, the bill puts industry desires above the findings and recommendations of impartial scientists,” DeLauro said in a press release. “Fresh, white potatoes are not currently included because the research shows white potatoes are not lacking in the diets of low-income women and children.”