BEYOND THE NUMBERS
In requiring the WIC nutrition program to add white potatoes to the foods it provides, Congress last week pandered to industry lobbyists rather than prioritizing the nutritional needs of low-income women and very young children.
Study after study shows that WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) improves birth outcomes and participants’ diets. One reason is that it provides a “prescription food package” of a limited number of nutritionally important foods that participants’ diets tend to lack. WIC doesn’t offer white potatoes because low-income women and young children already eat plenty of them.
With the addition of white potatoes to the food package, many participants will consume inadequate amounts of certain other important foods — because every WIC dollar spent on white potatoes is one dollar less for other fruits and vegetables.
The selection of foods to include in the WIC food package has always followed a rigorous, science-based process. The current foods reflect a review that the Institute of Medicine (IOM) conducted about a decade ago. IOM is doing a new review to modify the WIC food package to reflect the latest scientific findings.
Yet Congress didn’t wait for the results. Instead, at the behest of the potato industry, the 2015 funding bill about to become law dictates that WIC begin offering white potatoes. This is the first time in WIC’s 40-year history that Congress has overridden the science-based process and mandated the addition of a particular food.
Ultimately, WIC should return to its sound science base. The new potato mandate expires if the next scientific review recommends removing white potatoes from the WIC food list.
But Congress’ decision, at the behest of special interests, to substitute its judgment for that of nutrition scientists and maternal and child health experts sets an unwise and dangerous precedent. Lobbyists for other food industries may now try to prod Congress to insist that WIC offer their foods as well, regardless of the foods’ nutritional value. That could jeopardize WIC’s widely heralded success at improving participants’ nutrition and health.