USDA changes to WIC program leave potatoes out of the pot

By Aarian Marshall

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Feb. 28, 2014 - USDA took steps today to make permanent changes to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (commonly known as WIC) that will allow benefit recipients to purchase more fruits and vegetables.

But while the revisions will certainly please health advocates, they deal a blow to the potato industry - WIC participants still won't be able to purchase white potatoes with their benefit dollars.

The National Potato Council (NPC) said it was “disappointed” by USDA's decision. “The science clearly justifies including nutritionally rich fresh white potatoes in the WIC basket, and we will continue to urge USDA to reverse its course and restore science to the WIC program,” the group said in a release.

Lets Talk Food

WIC participants have not been able to purchase white potatoes since 2007.

NPC argues white potatoes are a good source of dietary fiber. According to USDA data, one medium baked potato provides 15 percent of an individual's daily recommended fiber intake. But health experts say white potatoes are often prepared in ways that increase their fat and calorie content. According to USDA's 2010 Dietary Guidelines, fried potatoes account for 5 percent of all solid fat intake in the American diet. 

WIC, a federal program meant to provide supplemental nutrition assistance to low-income mothers and their infants and children up to age 5, was appropriated $6.7 billion in the omnibus spending bill passed in January. In 2013, the program served over 9.7 million women and children. The program reaches 85 percent of low-income children in the U.S. and more than 2 million in their first year of life.

This program couldn't be more vital,” Sam Kass, director of First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! Initiative, told reporters today. “As we work collectively to ensure a healthier future, WIC has been one of our greatest success stories.”

Under the final rule announced today by USDA, WIC participants will be able to purchase 30 percent more fruits and vegetables. (The average WIC participant receives $45 per month). It also expands whole grain options available to participants, allows yogurt as a partial milk substitute, and permits parents of older infants to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables instead of jarred infant food.

Kevin Concannon, USDA Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, said today's changes would promote healthy choices for all Americans. Retailers who wish to participate in the WIC program will be forced to “stock more fruits and vegetables,” he said. “What it results in is the increased availability of healthy foods on the shelves of those stores,” making them accessible to consumers of all income levels.

White potatoes, however, were excluded.  USDA said the restriction was based on Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommendations indicating women and children already consume enough starchy vegetables. Based on surveys conducted between 1999 and 2002, IOM suggests that keeping white potatoes out of the WIC mix will force parents and students to consume other vegetables. Given the nutritional value of other options, “students will learn to value the vegetable items offered,” IOM wrote.

Today's development is just the latest WIC rebuff of the potato industry, which attempted to include a provision in the farm bill that could have lifted the ban on the produce. The measure would have mandated a study of the economic and health benefits of white potatoes on low-income families found to be at nutritional risk, and though it was included in the House-passed version of the farm bill, it did not make it into the final legislation.

Lobbying disclosure forms show that the National Potato Council, which spent $185,000 on lobbying activities in 2013, had counted WIC among its top legislative issues.

Politically, the decision was a tricky one for USDA. The 2014 omnibus appropriations bill instructed the Secretary of Agriculture to include “all varieties of fresh, whole or cut vegetables” in the WIC program - an implicit endorsement of the white potato.

But USDA says it has the science to back up the ban. According to Concannon, the department has already responded directly to lawmakers who insisted upon the inclusion of white potatoes in the WIC program. In a call today with reporters, Concannon also said USDA would request IOM “jump start” a review of the nutritional values of all foods in the WIC package as early as next week.

“The department recognizes that white potatoes can be a healthful part of one's diet,” USDA writes in the final WIC rule. “However, WIC food packages are carefully designed to address the supplemental nutritional needs of a specific population.”

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