At a time when much of the nation seems to be getting with the campaign for better nutrition, big potato growers are pushing Congress to ignore the USDA guidelines that keep white potatoes off the list of fresh vegetables eligible for a part of the Women Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition program to provide fresh produce in poor families’ diets.
It’s leading to an odd battle in the Senate appropriations process: Organizations worried about nutrition in subsidized food programs for the poor are digging in against the potato industry’s efforts to destigmatize white potatoes. If nothing else, the issue has brought together allies across partisan lines in the Appropriations Committee.
A letter sent May 19 to members of Congress signed by 18 religious organizations – including Catholic Charities USA, Network, the Catholic social justice lobby, and two orders of religious women – warns against revising nutrition standards in the appropriations process.
Over the past several decades, federal child nutrition programs have played a critical role in preventing hunger and promoting health among some of our nation’s most vulnerable children. One of the reasons for their success is that the programs, including the WIC Program and the School Lunch Program, have been guided and informed by non-partisan scientific processes. Congress has appropriately set broad policy parameters for the programs, but has left program design and details to the Department of Agriculture, which typically relies on the scientific expertise of organizations such as the National Academy of Sciences.
But recently, this scientific process has come under attack as outside groups have increasingly sought to use the appropriations process to compel changes to federal nutrition programs. For example, several years ago, special interests successfully used the appropriations process to weaken the National School Lunch Program to the advantage of potato and frozen food interests. Last year, similar efforts were undertaken to attack proposed rules pertaining to school meals standards and the WIC food package.
The religious groups’ letter is one volley in an effort that has been playing out in op-ed pages over the last couple of weeks. A vote is expected in the Senate Appropriations Committee May 22 as it marks up the appropriations bill for the Department of Agriculture.
As a May 11 editorial in USA Today observed,
The potato exclusion, like every other decision about WIC’s menu of the last 40 years, is based on nutritional science — which is exactly the way things like this ought to be done. In 2005, the Institute of Medicine specifically recommended excluding white potatoes because low-income people were already eating plenty of them. The Agriculture Department accepted the advice.
But that riled the potato industry, which insists the issue isn’t money but image. “We can’t let our federal government perpetuate those negative stereotypes,” says Mark Szymanski of the National Potato Council.
So in a classic case of a special interest trumping the public interest, potato growers and their allies are fighting back the Washington way, boosting campaign donations and enlisting potato-state politicians to force the Agriculture Department to let potatoes into WIC.
The potato industry counters that white potatoes have an inaccurate bad rep as nutritional bad boys. (Their cousins, sweet potatoes and yams, are accepted in WIC and other nutrition programs.) In an opposing view to the USA Today editorial, two senators from Top 10 potato growing states — Republican Susan Collins of Maine and Democrat Mark Udall of Colorado — said the nutritional data used by the USDA is out of date, that baked potatoes get unfairly tarnished by the inarguably unhealthy nature of french fries.
Because some people don’t differentiate between french fries and baked potatoes, the potato has gotten a bad rap. We believe a balance can be found that preserves the integrity of programs such as WIC while also ensuring that the most updated facts are being used to determine the best nutrients for Americans — including from the potato.
Meanwhile, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has been rallying opposition to giving potatoes a pass into the nutrition program. Among the arguments its advocates raise is that letting Congress — instead of food science agencies including the USDA — change policy about what qualifies for nutrition programs opens the door to advocates for all kinds of other foods to try to get similar back-door approval for the programs.
Another letter, from nutrition-focused groups — including the American Academy of Pediatrics, Bread for the World and the American Public Health Association – focused on the angle in a letter from March. They warned that the appropriate way to ensure the WIC program remains science-based is to conduct another review of the science “including consumption data.” The letter noted that such a review is under way.