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off the charts

WIC Works, Without Congress’ Meddling

A central tenet of the WIC program is that the foods it provides to millions of low-income mothers should reflect a rigorous, science-based review of nutritionally important foods that participants’ diets tend to lack.

In December, Congress took the unprecedented and irresponsible step of overriding that proven approach.  The Institute of Medicine (IOM) was reviewing whether to add white potatoes — which WIC didn’t offer because low-income women and young children already eat lots of them — to the foods that WIC participants can buy with their fruit and vegetable vouchers.  But rather than wait for the results, Congress (under heavy pressure from potato industry lobbyists) dictated that WIC offer white potatoes.

Congress also directed WIC to abide by IOM’s science-based recommendation once the IOM finished its work.  The IOM has now concluded, based on the latest dietary recommendations and data, that there’s no longer a reason to exclude white potatoes.  Potato consumption hasn’t waned, it noted; Americans still eat more white potatoes than any other vegetable.  But the federal government’s most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans raised the recommended consumption of starchy vegetables, and Americans generally don’t meet the new recommendation, though they come closer than for any other type of vegetable.

The Agriculture Department will undoubtedly follow this science-based recommendation and adopt other IOM recommendations when the IOM completes its comprehensive review of all WIC foods.  That’s as it should be.

While Congress’ mandate in this case turned out to be consistent with the IOM recommendation, lobbying pressure could prompt future congressional directives that conflict with science-based recommendations.  The lesson here is that we can trust the science-based process for selecting WIC foods to respond to changes in dietary patterns or nutrition recommendations.  Let’s hope Congress learned this lesson and won’t try to dictate WIC foods in the future.