Ag Secretary Defends Dropping Potatoes From Federal Food Program for Low-Income Mothers

By Dan Joseph | October 21, 2010 | 5:30pm EDT

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at the Department of Agriculture in Washington, Wednesday, July 21, 2010 (AP photo)

(CNSNews.com) – Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says there is nothing wrong with eating potatoes in moderation, even though the federal Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program – one of the largest federal food assistance programs – is now finalizing an interim rule that bars participants from buying potatoes with their federal dollars. 

The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture also is limiting potatoes in the federal School Lunch Program.

When CNSNews.com posed the question -- "Is there anything wrong with eating potatoes in moderation?" -- Thursday to Vilsack at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., he responded, "No," but then quipped to the room full of reporters, Potatoes are a source of ethanol, I'm sure.” Vilsack had been speaking on the issue of biofuels production.

“The quick answer to this is that studies have shown that WIC participants are already purchasing potatoes in sufficient quantities. There’s no need to encourage purchasing of potatoes because they’re already purchasing sufficient quantities. That’s why it’s not in the supply,” Vilsack added.

The WIC program, which is operated by Vilsack’s USDA in conjunction with state agencies, has drawn fire for including “fresh fruits and vegetables” but not white potatoes in food packages given to low-income mothers – and it won’t allow federal vouchers to be spent on potatoes.

The exclusion of potatoes stems from a reccomendation in a report from the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine. The recommendation was “made to encourage consumption of other fruits and vegetables," according to Christine Stencel, a spokeswoman for the Institute of Medicine. 

Stencel told CNSNews.com that the IOM was charged with bringing WIC packages in line with the latest dietary guidelines, which "all kind of say that we need to encourage greater varieties of fruit and vegetable consumption in this country."

"White Potatoes are pretty widely consumed in America, so WIC participants are getting the benefits, the nutritional benefits that are in white potatoes," Stencel said. "The recommendation about not using the WIC packages to purchase white potatoes is mainly to promote the purchase and consumption of a greater variety of fruits and vegetables.

"The research shows that we Americans are generally consuming too few of those dark green leafy vegetables -- orange, yellow, red ones, et cetera. So that’s the main reason. It’s not saying that potatoes don’t have their own nutritional value, it’s just people are getting those benefits already.”

Potato growers, meanwhile, complain that the federal government is unfairly singling out potatoes because “healthy food” advocacy groups have lobbied the federal government.

Tim O’Connor, president and CEO of the United States Potato Board, said the USDA’s WIC decision is misguided and counter-productive to the goal of promoting healthy eating habits among women and children.

“It’s a preposterous decision by both the Institute of Medicine and the USDA,” O’Connor told CNSNews.com.

“Regardless of the level of consumption of potatoes by participants, if you read the details of the WIC program there are ingredients of specific concern that women and their young children in the program are not consuming enough and those primary ones are focused around nutrients that potatoes are an excellent source of,” he added. “I wish I could get into their head and understand their reasoning because it doesn’t hold water. Scientifically, it makes no sense.”

Chris Voight, executive director of the Washington State Potato Board told CNSNews.com that the Ag Department’s move sends the wrong message to consumers.

“What does it mean when they (WIC) say ‘OK, we’re going to let you use your WIC dollars to purchase all the fresh fruits and vegetables you want -- except potatoes?’” Voight said.  “It makes it sound like potatoes are not nutritious. That’s what we’re very concerned about.”

John Keeling, president of the National Potato Council said the decision will ultimately end up hurting poor mothers not only by depriving them of important nutrients but also by limiting options economically.

“The problem for the WIC mothers” said Keeling “is that you’re taking a nutrient-dense vegetable that for $3.80 can provide nutrition and satisfying food for their kids for a week and you’re taking that away from them as an option.”

Even with the new explanation from Vilsack, Potato growers and their advocates do not see a good reason for singling out potatoes for exclusion from government food programs.

“I’m sure that they’re also buying apples, bananas and lettuce, said Voight  “They’ve got to be buying other produce items and yet they’re only excluding potatoes? That seems very discriminatory.”

The federal WIC program provides food to low-income mothers designed to meet the special nutritional needs of infants and children up to five years of age who are at nutritional risk.

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Transcript of Exchange with Tom Vilsack,  Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture:

CNSNews.com: A little bit off topic. The federal Women, Children and Infants (WIC) Program recently OK’d an interim rule that bars participants from buying potatoes with their federal dollars and the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture is limiting potatoes in school lunchrooms. The question is, is there anything wrong with eating potatoes in moderation?

(Laughter)

Agriculture Secretary Vilsack: No. Potatoes are a source of ethanol. (laughter)

Sec. Vilsack: The quick answer to this is that studies have shown that W.I.C participants are already purchasing potatoes in sufficient quantities so there’s no need to encourage purchasing of potatoes because they’re already purchasing sufficient quantities. That’s why it’s not in the supply.

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