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Nutrition Experts, Not Lobbyists, Should Decide WIC Potato Issue

Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Mark Udall (D-CO) essentially argued in yesterday’s USA Today that Congress should, for the first time, override the science-based process for deciding which foods the WIC program provides by requiring WIC to add white potatoes.  That would be a serious mistake — and set a dangerous precedent.

It’s a mistake because every dollar that participants use from their WIC fruit and vegetable vouchers (which amount to just $8 or $10 a month) to buy white potatoes is one less dollar available to buy foods that they don’t eat enough of, like dark green leafy vegetables.

As WIC’s formal name — the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children — makes clear, WIC was never intended to provide a full range of foods.  Instead, it provides the key nutrients that nutrition experts say are missing from the diets of low-income pregnant and nursing women, infants, and young children.  And studies indicate that WIC participants already consume enough starchy vegetables, the most popular of which is the white potato.

Forcing WIC to include white potatoes would set a dangerous precedent because Congress has never, in WIC’s 40-year history, required it to include (or exclude) any particular food, wisely leaving that to experts in nutrition science and child and maternal health.  The sound scientific basis for WIC foods is one reason for WIC’s well-documented success at improving birth outcomes and participants’ nutrition and health.

Breaking Congress’s commitment to insulating WIC foods from political pressures could open the floodgates for lobbyists to pressure Congress to add any number of other products, irrespective of their nutritional value.  That could jeopardize WIC’s success at improving participants’ nutrition and health.

The Agriculture Department (USDA) conducts periodic, comprehensive reviews of the WIC food package based on the latest nutrition science and the most current food consumption data.  In February, in response to congressional interest in WIC offering white potatoes, USDA started the next such review earlier than planned.  If the review finds that adding white potatoes would benefit the millions of low-income women and young children that WIC serves, we would favor it.  We’d also favor expediting the review process.  But for Congress to override the science-based process and force WIC to include white potatoes would constitute, as USA Today editorialized yesterday, “a classic case of a special interest trumping the public interest.”