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Round One to the Potato Lobby, But the WIC Fight’s Not Over

The potato industry is pressing Congress to break its 40-year commitment to ensuring that the foods that the WIC program provides reflect recommendations from nutrition scientists, not lobbyists.  And so far, it’s succeeding.

That’s bad news for the 9 million low-income pregnant and postpartum women, infants, and young children whom WIC — the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children — serves.

Congress has never dictated the specific foods that WIC should provide, wisely leaving that to nutrition experts.  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.

In June, however, the House Appropriations Committee approved an amendment to WIC’s annual funding bill that requires WIC to allow participants to buy white potatoes with WIC fruit and vegetable vouchers.

The Agriculture Department started those vouchers in 2009 — the result of a multi-year process to align WIC foods with the latest nutrition science, based on recommendations from the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine (IOM).  WIC is a supplemental nutrition program, so the IOM convened top health and nutrition experts to study which foods tend to be missing from WIC participants’ diets and recommend foods to include in the WIC food package.

As the IOM recommended, WIC provides vouchers for fruits and vegetables but not for white potatoes because that would offer no additional nutritional benefit.  Low-income mothers and young children already eat more than the recommended amounts of starchy vegetables.

Moreover, WIC participants receive only $6 each month for fruits and vegetables for children and $10 monthly for women.  Allowing participants to use their fruit and vegetable vouchers to buy white potatoes would “crowd out” foods that participants don’t eat enough of, like dark green leafy vegetables.

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

The continuing resolution that Congress announced last week is likely to extend WIC’s funding for six months, so we won’t know the outcome of this issue until early next year, when Congress sets WIC funding for the remainder of fiscal year 2013.  For the sake of low-income women and young children, the Senate should reject the House’s white potato mandate and instead focus solely on promoting mothers’ and young children’s health.