Why Ban Fresh Potatoes From The WIC Program?

Why Ban Fresh Potatoes From The WIC Program?

John Keeling

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A recent national survey revealed that nearly seven out of 10 Americans are eating more vegetables, fruits, and whole grains than they did five years ago. Not only is this great news for the produce industry, but the poll, conducted by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, is a sign that people may finally be heeding the healthy eating messages promoted by nutritionists, doctors, and anti-obesity advocates.      

The survey also demonstrates that national policy decisions seem to be having a positive impact on consumption patterns. For example, the 2008 Farm Bill, for the first time in farm bill history, invested federal funding to increase access to foods produced by specialty crop growers. More recently, a 2012 federal appropriations bill added $4 million in funding to increase the number of farmers’ markets participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in order for low-income populations to gain better access to fresh, locally grown produce.

Barring Potatoes
Unfortunately, for all the nutrition momentum taking place in the public policy arena, one major federal program bafflingly bars participants from purchasing one item in the produce aisle. The program: the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). The vegetable: fresh white potatoes.

The WIC program was created to provide supplemental food and nutrition education for low-income pregnant and breastfeeding mothers and their children up to age five who are found to be at nutritional risk. Since nutrient-rich white potatoes supply these populations with the exact nutrients they need to stay healthy (i.e., folate, potassium, and fiber), one would assume that federal policy would encourage their consumption of potatoes. Regrettably, the WIC does the exact opposite.  

Any day now, USDA will finalize its regulations for the WIC program.
Should they move their current proposal forward, USDA would make all fruits and vegetables — except fresh white potatoes — eligible for WIC vouchers.

The National Potato Council and our state partners have been working to convince USDA that WIC participants and U.S. taxpayers deserve federal nutrition policy that is science-based, has the potential to improve the health of participants, and makes wise use of federal funds.

Conflicting Data
USDA’s proposal contradicts its own nutritional recommendations. The government’s latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans (2010 DGA) recommends that women consume five to six cups of starchy vegetables (such as white potatoes) per week. This is up by more than two to three cups from the previous DGA released in 2005. In addition, the 2010 DGA also recommends up to four cups of starchy vegetables per week for children up to age five — an increase of one and a half cups per week from the 2005 DGA.

The proposed rule also doesn’t make sense from an economic standpoint. According to USDA, potatoes are the most inexpensive vegetable on a cost-per-cup basis, coming in at 19¢ per one cooked cup. A ban on fresh white potatoes would force participants into buying more expensive fruits and vegetables, frustrating mothers who are trying to feed their families by stretching their WIC vouchers.

The proposed ban on fresh white potatoes unduly restricts the personal choices of participants, stigmatizes potatoes, and could potentially harm the very people the program is supposed to assist. It’s time for USDA to revisit its flawed WIC rule and get behind the national push
for eating more fruits and vegetables … including fresh white potatoes.