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Congress Must Not Break 40-Year Commitment to Let WIC Provide Most Nutritious Food

The potato industry and several senators are pressuring congressional negotiators on the farm bill to break a 40-year commitment that has ensured that foods provided by the WIC program reflect the best advice of nutrition scientists.  They want to require WIC to allow the low-income women and young children who participate to purchase white potatoes with their WIC benefits, which would crowd out purchases of vegetables they don’t get enough of.

The House farm bill calls for a study of the benefits of white potatoes.  But the industry and some senators want to go further.  The provision that they hope to add to the farm bill in conference to mandate that WIC offer white potatoes — even though such a provision is in neither the Senate nor House bills — would mark a deeply misguided precedent for WIC.

The WIC program serves close to 9 million low-income pregnant and postpartum women, infants, and young children who are at nutritional risk, and it is widely regarded as among the most successful of all federal programs.  Its success at markedly improving birth outcomes and participants’ nutrition and health is well documented.  WIC provides a “prescription food package” of items that are needed, but lacking, in the diets of its target population.  In WIC’s 40-year history, Congress has never intervened to require that WIC include, or exclude, any particular food item.

The foods provided by WIC — officially, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children — are based on the scientific judgment of the nation’s leading nutrition experts who have spent years reviewing the research on what nutrients needed for healthy births and child development are lacking in the diets of low-income women and young children.  The law already provides for another such review to be conducted in a couple of years.

Throughout the program’s history, members of Congress whose states or districts produce or process various food items have, in response to lobbying pressures, expressed interest in WIC food package decisions and urged WIC to include particular items produced in their states.  But Congress has held firm under Democratic and Republican majorities alike in the position that having lawmakers override the science — and mandate WIC food decisions on parochial political grounds, rather than letting the science prevail — would cross the line.

If this Congress violates that standard for the first time, there could be a cascading effect; it could open the door to more aggressive lobbying on WIC foods.  Various segments of the food industry would almost certainly seek to line up members of Congress to push their products, as well.  The integrity of the WIC food package — and the program’s high degree of effectiveness — could erode significantly over time.

In this case — the case of the white potato — the research clearly shows that the low-income women and children whom WIC serves already consume plenty of starchy vegetables, the most popular of which is the white potato, while under-consuming fruits and other vegetables.  If participants start using their WIC fruit and vegetable vouchers — which are for a modest fixed dollar amount of just $6 or $10 a month — to buy white potatoes, that 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.  If we are truly interested in the nutritional well-being of low-income children, this makes no sense.

Congress should not head down this road.  It should not bow to the pressure of lobbyists and break its 40-year commitment to apply the best science to WIC.  Congress should reject efforts to intervene in the foods that WIC provides and should place children’s well-being first and let the science prevail.