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Voices Mount to Let Science Decide the WIC Potato Issue

We’ve explained why nutrition scientists, not lobbyists, should decide whether WIC should add white potatoes to the limited list of foods that it provides — and numerous editorial boards and columnists agree.  Here are a few examples, the first two from major potato-growing states, Maine and Wisconsin:

Portland, Maine’s Portland Press Herald has editorialized:

. . . WIC is a supplemental nutrition program, meaning that it is used to make sure that certain healthy foodstuffs are available to pregnant women and families with young children.

Potatoes — unfortunately, mostly in their fried form — are already a part of the American diet, and they don’t need a nudge from a government program to remind people to eat them.

The potato industry admits that it’s less worried about the business it would lose than the bad publicity it would get from being left off the WIC list of healthy foods. But using the political muscle of the congressional delegations of the potato-producing states is not the right solution. . . .

Racine, Wisconsin’s Journal Times has editorialized:

. . . Wisconsin potato farmers insist the government data on the nutritional value of the potato is outdated.  They’ll get a chance to make that argument this year when the Institute of Medicine begins a new review of the nutritional value of all foods in the WIC package — as directed by the USDA [Agriculture Department].

But, for now, it would be a mistake for potato growers to lobby state congressmen for a political reversal of what is — and should be — a decision based on science.

If potatoes are already on the table of low-income families in sufficient quantity, it would be a mistake to add them to the WIC list just to boost the fortunes of one industry.

The WIC program, after all, is a nutrition program to help low-income Americans get a balanced diet.  It is not a potato jobs program and it is not a support program for potato growers, nor should it be. . . .

The Washington Post’s Catherine Rampell writes:

. . . [I]f the next scientific review finds that poor moms’ and toddlers’ eating habits have become severely white-potato-deficient, then by all means, the USDA should add white potatoes into WIC.  But Congress shouldn’t circumvent the process.

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.

The New York Times’ Teresa Tritch writes:

. . . The experts at the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, who devised the WIC diet, found that white potatoes would provide no “supplemental” nutritional benefit because WIC participants already eat more than the recommended amounts of starchy vegetables, while under-consuming other vegetables.

[Several senators advocating inclusion of white potatoes have] advanced a specious argument about the WIC food rules being hopelessly out of date.  They are not.  The rules took effect in 2009, and a review is currently underway.

But the senators don’t want to wait for a science-based review.  Rather, they say that the WIC food package should be based on the government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans from 2011, which basically lumped potatoes in with other vegetables as part of a healthy diet.  That’s a bad argument.  The WIC food package should not blindly follow the D.G.A, because the D.G.A. applies to everyone over the age of two.  It does not apply to the “special” and “supplemental” needs of pregnant and breastfeeding women, and of infants and toddlers. . . .

USA Today has editorialized:

The potato exclusion, like every other decision about WIC's menu of the last 40 years, is based on nutritional science — which is exactly the way things like this ought to be done.  In 2005, the Institute of Medicine specifically recommended excluding white potatoes because low-income people were already eating plenty of them.  The Agriculture Department accepted the advice.

But that riled the potato industry, which insists the issue isn’t money but image. “We can’t let our federal government perpetuate those negative stereotypes,” says Mark Szymanski of the National Potato Council.

So in a classic case of a special interest trumping the public interest, potato growers and their allies are fighting back the Washington way, boosting campaign donations and enlisting potato-state politicians to force the Agriculture Department to let potatoes into WIC.  They claim science is on their side, insisting newer studies show that potatoes are nutritious and that people aren't eating enough of them. . . .

Potatoes aside, that is a dreadful idea with broader implications.  It would undo 40 years of allowing science — instead of cash and political influence — to determine which foods taxpayers will subsidize.  That in turn would open the door for other big food lobbies to try the same end-run. . . .

WIC defenders have always been able to argue that no food has ever been able to trump science with money and muscle.  That would no longer be true if the potato lobby wins.