Politics Wins a Round, but the WIC Potato Fight Isn’t Over

February 10, 2014 at 2:06 pm

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack should reject Congress’s recent call to add white potatoes to the limited list of foods that the WIC program provides.  The report accompanying the omnibus spending bill that Congress approved last month instructs the Agriculture Department (USDA) to include all kinds of vegetables, including white potatoes, in the WIC food package; if Secretary Vilsack decides not to, he must submit a report to Congress explaining why.

Potatoes have never been part of the WIC food package, and with good reason.  The low-income women and young children that WIC serves already consume plenty of starchy vegetables — the most popular of which is the white potato — while under-consuming fruits and other vegetables, according to the most recent independent scientific review.  Therefore, Secretary Vilsack should leave white potatoes out unless a new, independent review of the science shows that they should be added.

WIC provides nutritious foods, counseling on healthy eating, and health care referrals to roughly 9 million low-income pregnant and postpartum women, infants, and children under age 5.  It was never intended to provide a full range of foods.  It’s a supplemental program, providing the key nutrients that nutrition scientists say are missing from the diets of low-income pregnant and nursing women, infants, and young children.

If participants start using their WIC fruit and vegetable vouchers — which amount to just $6 or $10 a month — to buy white potatoes, that would not only raise starch consumption but also leave less for foods that participants don’t eat enough of, such as dark green leafy vegetables.

Throughout WIC’s 40-year history, members of Congress whose states or districts produce or process various food items have sometimes urged WIC to include those items.  But

Congress has never required WIC to include (or exclude) any particular food item, believing correctly that such decisions should reflect scientific evidence, not political pressure.

To no small degree, WIC’s well-documented success at improving birth outcomes and participants’ nutrition and health reflects the program’s insulation from political pressures and its sole focus on promoting maternal and child health.  Capitulating to political pressure in this instance would encourage various segments of the food industry to line up members of Congress to push their products in WIC, as well.

While USDA hasn’t announced a decision, it “continues to believe in the importance of basing the nutrition standards for WIC on the best science available,” according to a spokesperson.  That sounds like Secretary Vilsack intends to place children’s well-being first, where it belongs.

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More About Zoë Neuberger

Zoë Neuberger

Neuberger, a Senior Policy Analyst, joined the Center in May 2001.

Full bio | Blog Archive | Research archive at CBPP.org

4 Comments Add Yours ↓

Comments are listed in reverse chronological order.

  1. 1

    M Lawrence, I think you have misunderstood the problem. No one is saying that potatoes cannot be a healthy part of a diet. No one is saying that potatoes are bad for you. What they are saying is that potatoes are already a sufficient part of the diet of those who use WIC vouchers. WIC is a _supplemental_ program, not a _comprehensive_ program. These people already get plenty of potatoes in their diet, so WIC does not need to “supplement” their diet with more potatoes.

  2. 2

    I have been working for WIC from 1991 to present. We have always been the standard of nutrition for low-income families. They depend on us for recommendation of sound nutrition regarding their families health and well being. If we start compromising that buy offering less than optimal health choices where will it leave them. It is good nutrition that help our future children become healthier men and women. Men and Women that could some day run the world. It is up to us to decide what kind of leadership we want making decision for the upcoming generation. Think about your own children and what you what for them. The best schools, the best jobs,etc. They also need the best nutrition so they have the stamina to success and make us all proud they we did the job we set out to do. I urge you to think about our children and families that wouldn’t have choices to feed their children vegetables and whole grains if it was not for programs like WIC.

  3. M Lawrence #

    You are so wrong about potatoes. They can be very healthy if you use a healthier cooking method.


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