It’s a heavyweight fight between the Agriculture Department and Congress over a major dietary issue: white potatoes.
The Agriculture Department, advised by the Institute of Medicine, wants to prevent participants in the federal Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program from buying white potatoes. They say they are concerned that the women will turn the potatoes into dangerous French fries, frying or baking them in fats and oils and jeopardizing the health of children across America. In 2009, the Department allowed the women to buy fruits and vegetables with their vouchers but no white potatoes.
Members of Congress representing the roughly 40 potato-growing states are fighting back. In 2011, when the USDA was trying to limit the consumption of French fries, Congress voted against an Agriculture Department proposal that potatoes and other starchy vegetables be served in federally subsidized school lunches only twice a week.
Congressmen have urged Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to include potatoes in the WIC program. If he refuses, Congress has indicated they must be given a reason. Vilsack has been noncommittal.
The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Public Health Association, and other groups issued a statement that “to change the WIC food package because of pressure from the potato industry” could undermine the WIC program and that Congress should remain uninvolved. Douglas Greenaway of the National WIC Association said it’s “unconscionable” for the potato industry to influence policy, continuing, “That should be dictated by science.”
The potato industry, meanwhile, has arguments of its own. Mark Szymanski of the National Potato Council said that the USDA’s 2010 dietary guidelines recommend eating starchy vegetables. He added that potatoes have potassium, dietary fiber, and folate that can be helpful for pregnant women, and that potatoes are cheap, thus enabling low-income mothers to buy them. He concluded that his organization’s aggressive drive for WIC to include potatoes is a challenge to the “perception that potatoes are not as nutritionally valuable as other vegetables and fruits.”
In 2012, a bipartisan group of more than 70 Republican and Democratic congressmen wrote Vilsack to assert that potatoes were healthy and to protest their omission from WIC. They warned that the agriculture Department’s crackdown on potatoes “suggests a ‘government knows best’ mentality inconsistent with individual choice and promotion of self-responsibility.”
Nutritionists don’t agree; Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest said, “It’s just that we are already eating too many potatoes, especially as French fries, and the government shouldn’t be giving out money to help people eat more potatoes.”