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Published July 09, 2012, 11:07 AM

Changing nutrition program benefits

A year after the potato industry convinced Congress to pass a law that the Agriculture Department could not limit the amount of white potatoes children are served in school meals, members of Congress are once again pushing USDA to buy more of the starchy vegetable for children.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Agweek

WASHINGTON—A year after the potato industry convinced Congress to pass a law that the Agriculture Department could not limit the amount of white potatoes children are served in school meals, members of Congress are once again pushing USDA to buy more of the starchy vegetable for children.

In a June 27 letter, Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., and Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., and 91 other House members urged Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to allow participants in the special nutrition program for women, infants and children, known as WIC, to buy white potatoes with their benefits.

The signers of the letter included House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., and Reps. Rick Berg, R-N.D., Dennis Rehberg, R-Mont., and Kristi Noem, R-S.D.

The fiscal year 2013 Agriculture Appropriations Bill approved by the House Appropriations Committee also contains an amendment that would require USDA to allow WIC benefits to be used to purchase white potatoes.

But an Agriculture department official told Agweek that USDA does not allow white potato purchases under the WIC program because it follows the National Academies of Science’s Institute of Medicine recommendation that the WIC packages contain foods that the children need and might not get without direction from the program.

“The IOM’s recommendations for the WIC food packages and the resulting proposed rule excluded the purchase of white potatoes with WIC vouchers since most Americans consume the maximum recommendation of one serving of potatoes per day,” the official wrote in an email. “The IOM had determined the food intake data for this target population indicate that consumption of starchy vegetables, including white potatoes, meets or exceeds the Dietary Guidelines for Americans intake recommendation for this vegetable subgroup, and would not support the goal of expanding the types and varieties of fruits and vegetables available to program participants.”

Current rules

Margo Wootan, the director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, signaled that USDA should not change its current rules.

The WIC program, Wootan says, “aims to supplement the diets of women and their children to address deficiencies and fill in nutritional gaps.

“Most families are already eating plenty of potatoes — and not enough of other vegetables,” she says. “The contents of the WIC food packages should be based on science and what is best for the health of women and children, not politics.”

The letter from Walden, Meeks and other House members promoted the nutritional value of potatoes.

“Fresh potatoes — especially those grown in Oregon — are loaded with nutrients, and WIC participants should be free to choose them as a healthy, low-cost way to feed their families,” Walden says. “Excluding them from the WIC program sends the wrong signal about their nutritional value, and the secretary should reconsider the department’s decision in the light of overwhelmingly bipartisan opposition.”

“Fresh, white potatoes are a cornerstone of many freshly prepared, home-cooked meals around the country,” Meeks says. “WIC participants in New York’s sixth congressional district come from rich and diverse cultural backgrounds, and should be given the opportunity to choose how to feed their families. The WIC program should encourage a well-balanced variety in Americans’ diets, not restrict access to a single vegetable.”

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