Correction appended, Jan. 10
Douglas Greenway, president of the National WIC Association, wants to make one thing clear: he does not hate potatoes. What he hates is the lobbying by the potato industry to get their root vegetable on the list of approved foods that low-income mothers and pregnant women can buy with their government-funded food vouchers.
“When I first met with [potato] producers, the first word out of my mouth was, ‘I love potatoes,’” says the head of the education and outreach branch of the health and food aid program for low-income women who are either pregnant, nursing or have children under the age of 5. Formally known as Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, the wide-reaching, 40-year-old WIC program has an annual budget of nearly $7 billion and serves around 9 million women and their young children.
WIC recipients with a family income of up to 185% of the poverty level can use their monthly food vouchers (of up to $10 per adult and $6 per child) to purchase fruit and most vegetables – just not white potatoes. Potatoes have been off the list of approved food list since 2009, when the USDA officially decided to exclude white potatoes from the package after research by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) found that though women and children had low fruit and veggie intake, they were eating an abundance of spuds.
“It’s a supplemental program,” says WIC’s education and outreach chief Greenway. “They’re going to get the potatoes anyway, they’re just not going to get them from WIC.”
Despite Greenway’s reservations about the popular starch — which are shared by many health advocates — the potato lobby may get its way after all. In early June, Congressman Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) introduced an amendment to the House agricultural appropriations bill that would allow WIC recipients to purchase white potatoes. That same month, Idaho Senators Mike Crapo and Jim Risch along with Senators Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) introduced an amendment to the Farm Bill to have potatoes added to the WIC list.
While both measures are currently working their way through Congress, neither has been approved. The House Appropriations Committee accepted the Simpson’s potato amendment, but the prospects of something similar happening in the Senate are less clear. The fate of the Farm Bill is also yet-to-be-determined, yet the potato industry thinks it’s their fight to lose.
Frank Muir, the President and CEO of the Idaho Potato Commission, one of the many industry groups lobbying for the white potato, says the argument that people already eat enough potatoes does not hold up. “You can make that point for apples, bananas, basically any fruit,” Muir said. “There is no logic to why potatoes are being excluded; we’re miseducating those most at risk to not eat potatoes.” What’s more, one potato has more potassium than a banana and 45% of the daily value of Vitamin C.
When introducing his Farm bill amendment to allow taters in WIC, Idaho Senator Mike Crapo said in June, “The Secretary of Agriculture should not exclude the eligibility of any variety of fresh vegetables from being provided as supplemental foods under the WIC program.” He added, ”Idaho potatoes are popular, affordable and nutritional, yet this commodity continues to be unfairly targeted despite WIC managers and staff across the country expressing support.”
For now, the potato battle has taken a backseat to other issues surrounding the Farm Bill, but this is not the first confrontation over the potato nor is it the first of its kind for WIC. In 2011, the Senate blocked an Obama Administration legislation that limited potato servings in school lunches and a mid-90s federal aid bill proposed adding Raisin Bran cereal to the WIC package.
Health advocacy groups fear that if the potato industry’s lobbying current effort succeeds, the floodgates will open and more will attempt to join the food package. Yet, industry officials contend that there will be no harm done with the addition of the potato; the fact is it’s a nutritious vegetable.
WIC’s advocacy chief is holding firm, however: “We’re saying stand on science; wait for a review of the white potato,” says Greenway. For now though, “The sweet potato is OK.”
Correction: The original version this story contained several errors. It misstated when the USDA rules excluding potatoes from WIC were enacted, what foods monthly cash vouchers can be used for, how long the WIC program has existed for, and whether potatoes were ever on the list of WIC approved foods.