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Politics Wins a Round, but the WIC Potato Fight Isn’t Over

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack should reject Congress’s recent call to add white potatoes to the limited list of foods that the WIC program provides.  The report accompanying the omnibus spending bill that Congress approved last month instructs the Agriculture Department (USDA) to include all kinds of vegetables, including white potatoes, in the WIC food package; if Secretary Vilsack decides not to, he must submit a report to Congress explaining why.

Potatoes have never been part of the WIC food package, and with good reason.  The low-income women and young children that WIC serves already consume plenty of starchy vegetables — the most popular of which is the white potato — while under-consuming fruits and other vegetables, according to the most recent independent scientific review.  Therefore, Secretary Vilsack should leave white potatoes out unless a new, independent review of the science shows that they should be added.

WIC 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.  It was never intended to provide a full range of foods.  It’s a supplemental program, providing the key nutrients that nutrition scientists say are missing from the diets of low-income pregnant and nursing women, infants, and young children.

If participants start using their WIC fruit and vegetable vouchers — which amount to just $6 or $10 a month — to buy white potatoes, that would not only raise starch consumption but also leave less for foods that participants don’t eat enough of, such as dark green leafy vegetables.

Throughout WIC’s 40-year history, members of Congress whose states or districts produce or process various food items have sometimes urged WIC to include those items.  But

Congress has never required WIC to include (or exclude) any particular food item, believing correctly that such decisions should reflect scientific evidence, not political pressure.

To no small degree, WIC’s well-documented success at improving birth outcomes and participants’ nutrition and health reflects the program’s insulation from political pressures and its sole focus on promoting maternal and child health.  Capitulating to political pressure in this instance would encourage various segments of the food industry to line up members of Congress to push their products in WIC, as well.

While USDA hasn’t announced a decision, it “continues to believe in the importance of basing the nutrition standards for WIC on the best science available,” according to a spokesperson.  That sounds like Secretary Vilsack intends to place children’s well-being first, where it belongs.