Do not pity the lowly white potato, for it has friends in high places.
Late last year, Congress decided to add white potatoes to the list of foods that can be purchased with government-subsidized vouchers used by participants in WIC — the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children. The addition was part of the behemoth 1,600-page “cromnibus,” and it was a shocking example of Congress defying science and writing its own menu.
White potatoes already figure heavily in the diets of low-income families, because potatoes are relatively inexpensive and usually come already prepared — albeit in the most unhealthy way imaginable.
Since it was created more than 40 years ago, the WIC program has been one of this country’s most successful anti-poverty, pro-health programs. WIC gives federal grants to states for food, nutrition education and health care referrals for low-income mothers and children younger than age 5. Connecticut is a hearty participant in WIC and was among 16 states that participated in the program’s first two-year pilot. In Connecticut, participants receive WIC checks, which can only be spent at WIC stores on WIC-approved items such as leafy green vegetables, fresh fruit and the like. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says roughly 54,000 people in Connecticut participate each month.
In 2004, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies reviewed the WIC food package to see what could be changed to better the health outcomes for low-income participants. The next year, the institute issued its changes, including encouraging more breast-feeding of infants and emphasizing whole grains. More fruits and vegetables were added, with only one restriction: White potatoes should not be allowed since “most Americans do not need encouragement to consume the maximum recommendation of one serving of potatoes per day.”
In other words: Base food on science. If people are eating a food item already, there’s no need to pay to have that food be included in their diet.
The restriction did nothing to decrease the country’s potato consumption, even though a USDA Economic Research Service study says carrots, lettuce, and pinto beans are cheaper. In 2012, Americans ate — according to the “2014 Potato Statistical Yearbook,” a publication that actually exists — 116 pounds per capita. But it’s the form in which we consume potatoes that is the issue. The National Potato Council says that 34 percent of U.S. white potatoes end up as french fries; 13 percent becomes potato chips and shoestring potatoes. Nutritionally, the processing renders the potato pretty much as worthless as the plastic bag packaging.
It’s hard to type “Big Potato” without giggling, but that’s precisely who got the rules changed. But their spokespeople, well-heeled and aggressive, said their lobbying wasn’t about increasing consumption of potatoes, but about restoring the potato’s rightful place among beloved vegetables.
The mind boggles, reaches for a fry and chews pensively. Want an example of some of their earlier efforts? Check out the website Keep Potatoes In Schools! It would be hilarious, if it wasn’t for real.
The institute was already in the process of another review of WIC’s foods, but Congress, for the first time in the history of the program, ignored that august body in favor of issuing its ill-advised potato mandate.
That does not bode well for the scientific process, or healthy diets among low income families. As the National WIC Association said, Congress’ actions could open the door for other food industries to strong-arm their way into the diet of low-income families.
The point of WIC is to get families fed, and to get children accustomed to eating healthy foods. WIC is credited with improving diet and health outcomes, with improved cognitive development in the children who participate and with healthier infants.
Why tamper with a winning diet?