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Rampell’s Right: “You Say Potato, I Say Precedent”

May 9, 2014 at 12:56 PM

The Washington Post’s Catherine Rampell rightly decries the industry lobbying campaign to add white potatoes to the limited list of foods that the WIC program provides.

As we’ve explained, white potatoes have never been part of the WIC food package, and for a sound reason.  The low-income women and young children whom WIC serves already consume enough starchy vegetables — the most popular of which is the white potato — while under-consuming fruits and other vegetables.

Accordingly, in 2009 WIC added to its benefit package a modest ($8 to $10 a month) voucher for recipients to buy fresh vegetables and fruits other than white potatoes.

Potato industry lobbyists have been trying ever since to convince Congress to require WIC to offer white potatoes.  Having failed in the 2014 farm bill and WIC funding bill, they’ve set their sights on the 2015 WIC funding bill, which the appropriations committees will likely consider later this month.

A group of senators last week urged Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to add white potatoes to WIC immediately — without waiting for the results of the next regular review of the WIC food package by the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine.  The implication was that if the Agriculture Department doesn’t act immediately, Congress will.

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.

Rampell’s piece today highlights the danger of breaking that 40-year commitment:

“Once the door is open to undermine the program this way, by putting it in the hands of the political machinery rather than scientific recommendations, it will be very hard to reverse it,” Irwin Redlener, a pediatrics professor at Columbia University and president of the Children’s Health Fund, told me. . . .

She also explains why it’s so important for members of Congress to stand firm on behalf of children’s health:

This is almost a caricature of an obvious statement, but here goes: Poor kids’ health, not special interests, should always come first.  Research has shown, again and again, that inequality begins in utero, and that disparities in earnings and well-being in adulthood are largely determined by disparities in nutrition, education and other conditions during the first few years of a child’s life.

WIC is one of the few federal programs that successfully narrows that early-life disparity. Let’s not mess with it.


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