A new provision has been made to the 2015 spending bill for the Agriculture Department that will soon head to the Senate floor for vote. On Thursday, the Senate Appropriations Committee argued to review and reverse the current law in a government food assistance program that doesn’t allow recipients to buy white potatoes.
Since 2007, those who receive financial aid through the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) supplemental food assistance program haven’t been allowed to use their money for white potatoes, a decision made by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The Committee rules include the white potato as a means of a formidable food for WIC recipients, as well as a request for a mandatory review of all the fruits and vegetables that are currently covered under the program.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) authored the amendment and explained her reasoning for the switch back to potatoes as she held up a bag of potatoes for visual effect. She argued that some of the WIC recipients who have access to farmer’s markets are allowed to make their potato purchases there but are barred from using their WIC money to buy potatoes from a supermarket.
“How in the world does that make any sense?” Collins said.
The Senators attributed the importance of potatoes to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) and urged the Secretary to "take immediate action to remedy the unwarranted exclusion of white potatoes from the WIC food package."
Those opposed to the potato proposal, such as Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), said potatoes are rarely eaten without toppings and are more often used as a delivery vehicle for butter, salt, sour cream, and other unhealthy toppings.
“This is the first time Congress is mandating what should be in the WIC program,” Harkin said.
In February, the USDA took steps to allow WIC recipients to purchase more fruits and vegetables, but, notably so, left the white potatoes out of the picture. The USDA will be taking comments on the final rule on was foods will be eligible for the WIC benefit until June 29. The National Potato Council (NPC) said it was “disappointed” by the USDA’s recent 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,” NPC said in a release.
In 2005, the purge of potatoes came after a scientific panel from the Institute of Medicine found that Americans already consumed more than enough starchy vegetables. Potato growers have since said the policy impacts their seasons, especially since the USDA updated the school lunch program’s nutritional standards to limit the amount of potatoes to no more than two servings a week.
The nearly nine million low-income pregnant women, new mothers, infants, and children covered by the program are given a monthly benefit of $10 for women and $6 for children to buy a variety of pre-approved fruits and vegetables, minus the white potatoes. The George Mateljan Foundation, a nonprofit foundation for nutrition research, placed potatoes on their top 10 most controversial foods list. If eaten with their skin, potatoes can be used as a good source of the vitamin B6, potassium, copper, vitamin C, manganese, phosphorus, niacin, dietary fiber, and pantothenic acid. It is commonly ruined by being transformed into greasy French fries and potato chips.
"The point of the supplementation program is to get our population to consume more leafy green, red, and orange fruits and vegetables because they're lacking in their diet," Douglas Greenaway, president and CEO of the National WIC Association, told NPR News. "And it makes sense that these food [rules] are driven by science and not by politics."