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Humble spud creates schism at USDA

Published on December 21, 2012 3:01AM

Last changed on January 18, 2013 9:11AM

Rik Dalvit/For the Capital Press

Rik Dalvit/For the Capital Press

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Either potatoes are good for you or they aren't, depending on who you listen to at the USDA. The debate over the healthfulness of spuds has apparently created an ideological schism within the department.

On one side, USDA made a "bonus buy" of $25 million worth of potatoes that will go to nutrition programs and food banks around the country. Such purchases are part of the USDA's program aimed at helping producers of various commodities weather dips in prices caused by oversupply and other factors. It also helps feed impoverished people in need of a healthful meal.

The potato market this year is saturated by a crop that's 11 percent larger than last year's. The USDA's purchase will send about 300 million pounds of potatoes and potato products to the pantries of U.S. food banks, where they will help feed the hungry.

On the flip side is the USDA's Women Infants and Children special nutrition program, which has gone out of its way to turn up its nose at potatoes. Spuds are one of only a handful of foods -- peanuts are another -- that mothers cannot buy using WIC checks and vouchers. The argument that the food nannies at WIC make is that people already eat enough potatoes and shouldn't eat any more. That's in spite of the fact that WIC coupons can buy tortillas, rice and other foods that make up significant portions of many WIC recipients' diets.

Like many federal programs, WIC started small and has snowballed over the years. In its first year, 1974, WIC served 88,000 people. Today more than 9 million people in all 50 states spend more than $7.2 billion at 49,000 stores authorized to accept WIC checks or vouchers, according to the USDA. Any family with children age 5 and under is eligible to receive WIC checks or vouchers, based on their income, which must be less than 185 percent of the poverty level. For example, a family of four with a gross income of $41,348 or less is eligible for WIC.

That a young mother can't buy a potato -- not one -- using WIC has long been an inconsistency for a program whose stated purpose is providing nutritious foods to young families. Potatoes are nutritious and provide a well-rounded helping of vitamins and minerals. And they are popular. Only the people at WIC don't like a good boiled or baked potato.

That inconsistency is even more bizarre and illogical considering that the same agency, USDA, buys potatoes for food banks to alleviate an oversupply that WIC helped create by banning potatoes.

Here's an idea. The folks at USDA should concern themselves with feeding people and get out of the food nanny business. Contrary to the thinking at WIC, American consumers are perfectly capable of deciding what to eat.


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