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Science — Not Politics — Should Shape the WIC Food Package

With the farm bill and appropriations bills moving through Congress, the potato industry is pushing again to require the WIC program to add white potatoes to the limited list of foods it provides, contrary to what the nation’s leading nutrition experts recommend.  Despite such lobbying campaigns in the past, Congress has never dictated the specific foods that WIC should provide — and it shouldn’t start now.

WIC — the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children — 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.

WIC 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.  Potatoes have never been part of the WIC food package.

Following a multi-year, science-based process, the Agriculture Department (USDA) revised the WIC food package in 2009 to include fruits and vegetables for the first time — part of an effort to fight the national obesity epidemic.

As the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine recommended, USDA did not include white potatoes because that would provide no additional nutritional benefit:  WIC participants already eat more than the recommended amounts of starchy vegetables. Allowing participants to use their WIC fruit and vegetable vouchers — which are for a fixed dollar amount of food purchases — to buy potatoes would not only lead to more starch consumption, but would leave less for foods that participants don’t eat enough of, such as dark green leafy vegetables.

The states or districts of many members of Congress include firms that grow or process specific food items that those lawmakers often promote.  Fortunately, policymakers on a bipartisan basis have agreed since WIC’s creation in 1972 that decisions on which foods to include in the WIC food package should be based on the best scientific evidence, rather than political pressure, and determined through a science-based process rather than dictated by Congress.

In no small part, WIC’s well-documented success at improving birth outcomes and participants’ nutrition and health reflects Congress’ commitment to insulate WIC from political pressures and focus solely on promoting maternal and child health.  Breaking that long-standing commitment now could undermine one of our most successful federal programs by substituting political pressures for sound scientific judgment.