By JOHN O'CONNELL
Potato industry leaders say they question the validity of reasons USDA officials offer for inconsistent policies on whether spuds can be included in nutrition programs.
The potato industry has made a priority of changing a USDA policy barring only the white potato from the list of fruits and vegetables approved for participants in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children.
USDA contends WIC, which gives food vouchers to low-income pregnant or breast-feeding women and women with children under 5 years old, serves a population that already has a diet heavy in potatoes. The prohibition was based on an Institute of Medicine analysis of nutritional needs for the population.
Though USDA excludes potatoes from WIC, the department recently approved a $25 million special purchase of fresh and processed spuds to supplement other nutrition programs and food bank inventories. USDA Under Secretary of Marketing and Regulatory Programs Edward Avalos lauded the so-called bonus buy in a press release: "This purchase will help relieve pressure on American potato producers and will help mitigate further downward prices, stabilize market conditions and provide high-quality, nutritious food to recipients of USDA's nutrition programs."
When asked why potatoes wouldn't also be nutritious for pregnant or breast-feeding women and young children, USDA offered a general response "on background" that the goal of WIC is to address dietary deficiencies, and American diets aren't deficient in potatoes. USDA indicated potatoes are one of the top sources of calories among Americans ages 2 and older, and the maximum recommendation is a single serving per day.
The National Potato Council has taken a lead role in lobbying for WIC changes. John Keeling, NPC's executive vice president and CEO, previously told Capital Press that National Health and Nutrition Survey data shows WIC mothers consume fewer potatoes than other women. NPC argues the loss in WIC sales is less significant than the message the policy sends to participants about spuds.
Ritchey Toevs, a U.S. Potato Board member who farms in Aberdeen, Idaho, challenged USDA to provide literature defending its position on WIC. He believes generating evidence to the contrary would be a "real good project for the Alliance for Potato Research and Education."
"The position on WIC is not supported by sound science," Toevs said, adding spuds offer complex carbohydrates and protein at an affordable price and don't spike blood sugars.
Bill Brewer, president and CEO of the Oregon Potato Commission, sees no reason WIC recipients should be denied a vegetable offered to other nutrition program recipients.
The Institute of Medicine "has no scientific research to back their guideline of one potato per day or proof to show the people using WIC dollars, the most needy, are consuming one potato per day," Brewer said. "The nutritional makeup of a sweet potato is almost exactly the same as a potato, yet it can be added to the WIC diet."