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Keeping Politics out of the WIC Food Package

The potato industry is pushing Congress to require the WIC program to add white potatoes to the limited list of foods it provides, counter to recommendations by the nation’s leading nutrition experts. Throughout WIC’s four-decade history, Congress has never intervened in the selection of specific WIC foods. Breaking that long-standing tradition could undermine one of our most successful federal programs by substituting political pressures for sound scientific judgment.

WIC — the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children — provides nutritious foods, counseling on healthy eating, and health care referrals to roughly 9 million low-income pregnant and postpartum women, infants, and children under age 5.

As its name makes clear, WIC was never intended to provide a full range of foods; it is a supplemental program, providing the key nutrients that nutrition scientists have determined are missing from the diets of low-income pregnant and nursing women, infants, and young children. Potatoes have never been part of the WIC food package.

Following a multi-year, science-based process, the Agriculture Department (USDA) revised the WIC food package in 2009 to include fruits and vegetables for the first time — part of an effort to help fight the national epidemic of obesity. USDA relied on recommendations from the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine (IOM).

As the IOM recommended, USDA did not include white potatoes because that would provide no additional nutritional benefit: WIC participants already eat more than the recommended amounts of starchy vegetables. Allowing participants to use their WIC fruit and vegetable vouchers — which are for a fixed dollar amount of food purchases — to buy potatoes would not only lead to further overconsumption of starches, but would leave less of their vouchers for foods that participants don’t eat enough of, such as dark green leafy vegetables.

The states or districts of many members of Congress include firms that grow or process specific food items that those lawmakers often feel compelled to promote. Fortunately, policymakers on a bipartisan basis have agreed since WIC’s creation in 1972 that decisions on which foods to include in the WIC food package should be based on the best scientific evidence, rather than political pressure, and should be determined through a science-based process rather than dictated by Congress.

If the potato industry’s lobbying campaign succeeds, that agreement will be broken and lobbyists for other foods will likely pressure Congress to add their products as well, regardless of what the science shows.

Extensive research shows that WIC improves birth outcomes as well as participants’ nutrition and health. In no small part, this success reflects Congress’ commitment to insulate WIC from political pressures and focus solely on promoting maternal and child health. Breaking that commitment now would jeopardize WIC’s record of accomplishment.