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White Potatoes, WIC, and Farmers’ Markets: Just the Facts

As potato industry lobbyists push Congress to override a well-established, science-based rule by dictating that WIC offer white potatoes, they claim that WIC participants can purchase white potatoes at farmers’ markets but not grocery stores.  This claim is extremely misleading.

The vouchers for fruit and vegetables that WIC participants receive each month cannot be used to purchase white potatoes at grocery stores or farmers’ markets.  Some WIC participants can, however, buy white potatoes using coupons they receive once a year through the very small, separate Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (FMNP).

The FMNP was established in 1992 to provide fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables to WIC participants and to expand awareness, use of, and sales at farmers’ markets.  To further support local farmers, state agencies may limit FMNP purchases to produce grown within their state.  There is no federal restriction on the purchase of white potatoes using FMNP coupons at farmers’ markets.

At the time Congress established the FMNP, and for the first 17 years of the program, WIC participants did not receive fruits and vegetables through the WIC program (other than exclusively breastfeeding women, who received only carrots).  The Food and Nutrition Service didn’t undertake a science-based process to determine which fruits and vegetables could be purchased at farmers’ markets because the program is separate from WIC, which has always used a science-based process to select which foods will be offered.

The WIC fruit and vegetable vouchers were established in 2009 as part of an overhaul of the WIC food package based on recommendations from the Institute of Medicine (IOM).  The IOM advised against allowing participants to purchase white potatoes because they were already eating enough starchy vegetables, but were not eating adequate amounts of other vegetables, like leafy greens.  Every woman and young child participating in WIC now receives a monthly voucher to buy $8 or $10 worth of fruits or vegetables, which amounts to $96 to $120 each year.  These vouchers can be used at WIC-authorized grocery stores or, in 20 states, at authorized farmers’ markets — but not, as noted above, for white potatoes.

It’s important to keep in mind the relative sizes of the FMNP and WIC.  WIC received $6.5 billion last year and served nearly 9 million low-income women, babies, and very young children each month.  The WIC fruit and vegetable vouchers make about $650 million available to WIC participants annually for purchases of fruits and vegetables.  In contrast, the FMNP received about $15 million last year as a component of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Commodity Assistance Program, which amounts to less than 2.5 percent of the fruit and vegetable vouchers made available through WIC.  Moreover, fewer than one in five WIC participants receives a farmers’ market coupon, and those who do receive only $10 to $30 annually.

WIC and the FMNP are two separate programs with different rules, though some families receive help from both.  Diluting WIC’s science-based approach to conform to the relatively tiny FMNP, a program partially designed to help farmers, makes no sense.  Policymakers should not let this argument sway them to put industry interests over the health of low-income women and toddlers.