WASHINGTON, D.C. — USDA has announced a final rule for the federal Women, Infants and Children nutrition program that continues to single out fresh, white potatoes as the only ineligible fresh fruit or vegetable.
Potato industry leaders, concerned that the exclusion sends a negative message about their commodity’s nutritional value, had made changing the policy a top legislative priority.
The nutrition program was utilized by 9.7 million low-income pregnant or nursing women and young children last year. USDA officials said WIC is accepted at 45,000 U.S. stores, which also benefits the general population due to increased selection of healthy foods in low-income neighborhoods.
Language was included in the recent federal appropriations bill expressing that it’s the “sense of Congress” that USDA should welcome fresh potatoes into WIC. During a Feb. 28 press conference, Kevin Concannon, USDA undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, said his agency will respect Congress’s sentiments by asking the Institute of Medicine to immediately commence a scientific review of all WIC items, a year ahead of the scheduled 2015 timeframe.
“We honor our commitment to science, but we also point out that we are listening,” Concannon said.
The final rule considers public comments from 7,700 individuals — including 266 who requested the inclusion of fresh white potatoes — in response to an interim WIC rule published in December of 2007. It also factors in IOM data, finding the target WIC population already consumes enough potatoes. Concannon said adding white potatoes would send a confusing message to mothers.
“This rule continues the exclusion of white potatoes because it maintains the consistency of IOM recommendations. This is a science-based program,” Concannon said.
National Potato Council spokesman Mark Szymanski noted the IOM consumption data utilized in the final WIC rule dates back to the mid-1990s, and USDA’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines call for Americans to eat more starchy vegetables.
Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, has vowed to use any legislative vehicle at his disposal to include white potatoes in WIC.
“I am deeply disappointed in the USDA’s continued war on potatoes and thought the intent of Congress in support of potatoes was crystal clear,” Simpson said.
Washington Potato Commission Executive Director Chris Voigt called the USDA’s final rule “the most egregious attack on logic and science I have ever seen.” Voigt emphasized potatoes are high in fiber and potassium.
Though the potato policy remained unchanged, the final rule included a few key revisions from the interim rule. The cash value of fruit and vegetable vouchers per child will increase from $6 to $8 per month.
Yogurt is now eligible as a partial substitute for milk for women and children, at each state’s discretion. Children between 12 months and 2 years old, who were previously limited to whole milk, may now purchase low-fat milk in cases in which obesity is of concern.
Whole wheat pasta will be eligible as a wheat substitute, and fresh fruits and vegetables may be substituted for a portion of prepared baby food purchases for infants between the ages of 9 months and 11 months.