A Washington state group representing the potato industry is taking exception to a think tank’s letter to lawmakers saying Congress shouldn’t get involved in federal nutrition programs.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, an organization that works on national fiscal policies and programs impacting low- and moderate-income families, said in its letter the group opposes efforts “to change or weaken federal child nutrition programs” in House appropriations legislation. 

Those efforts include requiring inclusion of white potatoes in the USDA Women, Infants and Children program and changing standards for the national school lunch program and rules that limit sugary beverages and  “unhealthy” snacks in schools.

“For decades, Congress has wisely ensured that federal child nutrition programs have been guided by science,” the letter states. “We strongly urge you to oppose efforts to intervene in science-based rules regarding the federal child nutrition programs.”

The letter is endorsed by 257 national and state organizations and individuals including Northwest Harvest, a hunger relief agency in Washington, and the Anti-Hunger and Nutrition Coalition, also in Washington.

“It really astounds me that these folks would not want to allow WIC participants to have the opportunity to choose a white potato at the retail level,” Matt Harris, director of government affairs for the Washington State Potato Commission, said. “These groups are completely misinformed on the issue and causing more damage than good.”

White potatoes are the only fruit or vegetable excluded from WIC, Harris said.

WIC participants cannot use vouchers to pay for potatoes because they already consume enough starchy vegetables, according to WIC officials.

The potato industry argues that potatoes contain many of the essential vitamins and nutrients participants are lacking, and exclusion sends the message that they are not healthy.

Christina Wong, co-chair of the nutrition coalition steering committee, said the letter is not against potatoes, it’s against the process and language that restructure WIC’s operations. Nutritionists and a science-based process should determine whether potatoes are included, she said.

“Our position is about the process, not about potatoes,” Wong said.

Other undersigners include AIDS United, Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty and Bread for the World.

Ronald Johnson, vice president of policy and advocacy for AIDS United, said his organization signed on to show solidarity with colleagues.

“Making sure policies are well-grounded in public health science and scientific evidence is (an issue) we feel very strongly about,” he said.

Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood Director Susan Linn declined to comment, saying it would be better to contact a nutrition organization.

Christine Ashley, senior policy analyst for Bread for the World, a Christian organization striving to end hunger, said the WIC package should be based on science, not political interests.

“I think there’s been points in time in the past where certain members of Congress wanted a particular food item included in the food package because it’s from their state,” she said. “It isn’t Congress’ job to mandate what nutrients are or are not missing from low-income women and children’s diets; it really should be based on science and a non-partisan review and regulatory process.”

Harris said the commission will continue the conversation to determine why the organizations would not want to allow WIC participants to buy fresh potatoes.

“It’s not about demand or consumption, it’s about giving a person an opportunity to make a free choice,” he said.

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