| Sep. 2nd, 2014

USDA Should Include Potato in WIC Program

I grew up in Aroostook County, which has been called the "Potato Capital of America." One of my first jobs was picking potatoes for a local farmer, Gilman Albair. Mainers are proud of our potato industry, which has made major contributions to the economy of the County and our state for more than two centuries.

That is why it is inconceivable that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is on the verge of taking a regulatory action that will hurt the potato industry.

To some federal bureaucrats in Washington, the potato apparently is viewed with disdain. In fact, the potato is a wonderfully nutritious food that is inexpensive, easy to transport, has a long storage life and can be used in a wide array of recipes. It is exactly the kind of vegetable that should be included in federal food programs like the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children - better known as the WIC Program. It is exactly the kind of vegetable that low-income families should have access to in order to prepare nutritious meals.

However, USDA disagrees. It is updating the federal WIC Program to encourage participants to buy more healthy fruits and vegetables, yet it inexplicably is excluding the white potato from the program. Worse, the white potato is the only vegetable to be left out. This simply doesn't make sense because the program includes hundreds of foods with lesser nutritional value, such as iceberg lettuce.

The USDA is currently reviewing those food offerings, and I am urging the Department to change its mind and include white potatoes along with yams and sweet potatoes, which have remained on the list of eligible foods. I recently joined a bipartisan group of my colleagues in both the Senate and House who wrote to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and asked him to include potatoes with all the other fruits and vegetables offered in the federal WIC program.

The USDA's decision ought to be driven by nutritional facts and food science. In that kind of review, the potato wins, hands down.

These facts from the National Potato Council confirm what we already know: The potato is fat-free, cholesterol-free and low in calories. It also is sodium free. It has plenty of Vitamin C; in fact, eating one medium-sized potato gives you 45 percent of the recommended daily value of this great antioxidant. And it has more potassium than bananas, is a great source of fiber and, as a complex carbohydrate, it offers a great source of energy.

Here in Maine, we have our own potato nutritional expert. Mary Ellen Camire, a food science and human nutrition professor from the University of Maine, has spent the past 21 years researching potatoes, dietary supplements and other foods, and she conducts nutritional evaluation of potato varieties with UMaine Cooperative Extension specialists. Professor Camire said that the justification for excluding white potatoes from the WIC program "just isn't there."

In an interview with the Bangor Daily News, Professor Camire said her research found that potatoes "contain a starch that is easily digestible. Because it is easier to digest potato starch, it makes it easier for children who eat them to absorb energy. You can feed a family very easily on a bag of potatoes. It is a disservice to people in the program and to the farmers to not include potatoes in the WIC program."

The USDA shouldn't let erroneous information lead it to make a wrong decision about the inclusion of the potato in the WIC Program. There's a lot at stake here. If the federal government bans the potato from the WIC Program, it would only further the false impression that some people have about this very healthy, very nutritious vegetable. It would send the wrong message, potentially causing terrible damage to Maine's potato industry which, according to the Maine Potato Board, employs more than 6,000 people and pays more than $32 million in state and local taxes.

As we noted in our letter to Secretary Vilsack: "The WIC program is meant to assist low-income and nutritionally at-risk pregnant and breastfeeding women and their infants and children-- individuals who often already face significant hurdles to ensure a balanced, healthy diet for themselves and their children. Potatoes allow WIC participants to supply much-needed nutrients to their families while maximizing their WIC program dollars."

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