by Marion Nestle
Jan 27 2014

The fight over white potatoes in WIC

Once again, Congress—under pressure from lobbyists—is micromanaging USDA’s food assistance programs.

This time it’s the WIC program (Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants, and Children).

The lobbying is coming from the National Potato Council, which wants—no surprise—white potatoes to be included the list of foods approved for purchase with WIC benefits (the “WIC Package”).

I love potatoes but they don’t need to be in WIC.

Here’s what this is about.

The WIC Food Package

This is designed to meet the special nutritional needs of at-risk low-income pregnant, breastfeeding, non-breastfeeding postpartum women, infants and children up to five years of age.  Rules published in the Federal Register in 2007 aimed to promote long-term breastfeeding by providing WIC participants with a wider variety of foods including fruits and vegetables and whole grains (see summary here).

Although the rules allow states considerable flexibility, they specifically exclude white potatoes.

The New York State WIC package, for example, allows any variety of fresh vegetables and fruits except white potatoes (sweet potatoes and yams are allowed).

These rules are the result of an Institute of Medicine study released in 2005.  This study found that WIC participants already ate plenty of white potatoes.  The report said it would be better for WIC to encourage consumption of a wider variety of vegetables.

Potato industry lobbying

For the last five years, the potato industry has been lobbying to include white potatoes in the WIC package.

Potato lobbyists are active these days.

For example, the Maine potato lobby succeeded in getting Congress to tell the USDA that it could not set any limits on the number of times per week that white potatoes could be served in school lunches.  That ploy worked and this one may work too.

The National Potato Council lobbyists induced Congress to add a clause to the 2014 omnibus appropriations bill.  When President Obama signed that bill on January 17, he directed the USDA to allow all varieties of fresh, whole, or cut vegetables to be included.  Translation: white potatoes, and French fries at that.

If the USDA fails to comply, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack must submit a report to Congress explaining why not.

The National Potato Council makes this statement: “This action sends a clear message to USDA that it is obligated to base its nutritional policy on the latest nutritional science, which calls for an increase in starchy vegetable consumption for all Americans, including WIC mothers and children.”

It does?  I’m not aware of such science.

The Institute of Medicine is currently reviewing the WIC package and I seriously doubt that it will find a deficiency of starchy vegetables in American diets.

This is about getting potato growers a chunk of taxpayer money spent for the WIC program.

Why should anyone care?

If Congress caves in on white potatoes, it will open a Pandora’s box of pressures from lobbyists representing every food product currently excluded from the WIC package.

If lobbyists for white potatoes succeed, can those for “fruit”-flavored cereals and sports drinks be far behind?

The WIC program has always focused on encouraging recipients to consume foods that will best promote their own health and that of their children.

It would be better for WIC recipients—and a lot better for American democracy—if the potato industry stopped manipulating Congress and interfering with USDA nutrition programs.

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  • roym4

    The 2005 study found that WIC users are already getting plenty of white potatoes. Since money is pretty much fungible allowing WIC to be used for white potatoes should just free up money to be used for other foods.
    That being said, I agree with your comments about “increasing starchy vegetable consumption” being typical BS trying to justify an industry benefit.

  • Lorraine Lewandrowski

    Yes, I guess the farmers are “industry.” Jim Gerritsen, owner of an Aroostook potato farm gives a bit of info on the situation of Maine potato farmers in a Cornucopia report. Jim stated that Maine farmers are losing out to larger scale farms of the Midwest with federally subsidized irrigation and low electric rates. He described one Maine farmer who grows Russets for a large firm. The cost is $3,000 per acre to raise… with a yield of 33,000 pounds w/a profit of $2300 to the farmer. Convert them into fries, and the retail value is $96,000. And, the state of Maine picks up a $6,000 “meals tax”…enabling it to make twice as much as the farmer off the potatoes.
    Buy the friends at McDonald’s and 90 cents of each dollar goes to McDonald’s and 2 or 3 cents to the farmer…8 or so cents to the processor.
    Jim also describes past wet years where the potato farmers sustained massive losses w/hundreds of acres of rotten potatoes. And, I know there was a “class action” lawsuit against other groups of potato growers claiming antitrust violations as some growers sought to allegedly set the prices they are paid.
    My point is that various farm groups do indeed lobby. But, I would ask food interested people to take a look at the people behind the scenes and try to understand where they are coming from and what their circumstances are. I don’t have all the answers, but a little more understanding of what goes on behind the scenes would help us to keep a resilient agriculture.

  • Jim Ireland

    Check out “White Potato Blues” a free song download on cdbaby,com

  • Howie G

    “If lobbyists for white potatoes succeed, can those for “fruit”-flavored cereals and sports drinks be far behind?” Wow – talk about extremes. So the natural, wholesome, nutrient-packed, relatively low-calorie, high fiber white potato is actually the devil in disguise, opening the flood gates for artificial, man-made foods to enter the WIC system? I hear ya – Americans eat too many FRIED white potatoes. However, there is nothing wrong with potatoes – just the preparation and toppings one chooses. There are so so so many worse foods that people can eat, why spend time picking on the potato. At least focus the conversation on preparation methods and toppings used – that is the real issue.

  • Lauren Swann

    potatoes weres actually previously considered many years ago for cultural reasons:

    “proposal, sent to the USDA in 1988, asked for the addition of potatoes as a WIC food in order to accommodate a dominant eating pattern among Eskimos.
    USDA rejected the third proposal for three reasons, stating that it allowed only substitutions, and not additions to the approved foods list, that potatoes did not supply the required amounts of target nutrients, and that fruit juices could be used to replace some servings of fruits and vegetables lacking in the traditional Eskimo diet.”

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  • TR

    A lot people obviously do not understand that the foods on the WIC packages are the ones that American tend to buy the least yet need none the less. As one poster noted below, WIC families buy more than enough potatoes on their own. The point behind the WIC food package is more about encouraging the clients to eat a “well rounded” diet than it is to help them out with a little something because they are poor. WIC continues to receive bipartisan support not becuase its a welfare program but because its an educational program. WIC clients receive nutrition assessments and nutrition education in addition to food packages. Its not just about hand outs. Why don’t these farmers pressure to have MRE manufacturers to put more potatoes in MREs or serve more potatoes to soldiers in the messhall? Surely soldiers need potatoes!

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  • Neil

    Here is some science that you said you were unaware of about the health benefits of potatoes.

    Not hatin’, just sayin’.

  • Bray

    In my opinion,

    Plain unprocessed potatoes are excluded from WIC because the bigger food industries like meat and dairy are fortunate enough to possess obscene amounts of money and sway over government programs, and spend as much as they can to influence public opinion, even at the expense of good Christian values.

    I’m not a Vegan, I don’t really like potatoes that much, and what I’m suggesting isn’t a conspiracy theory; it comes from the observation that the food industry is a business and this is how businesses work. Just like the companies who sell you shoes or cell phones, it all comes down to money and marketing.

    I’m not going to make any claims about the health benefits of any food, the studies constantly contradict each other and I’m tired of people pretending they know the only real absolute truth about what is healthy and what isn’t, but I do think it’s ridiculous that meat and dairy are being held up as perfect foods while potatoes have been unfairly demonized. I have never read any compelling evidence that support the claims that potatoes are an unhealthy food. If people enjoyed oats more than potatoes, we would probably be sitting here having a discussion about oats, because they would have been taking off the WIC program instead. It’s not really about potatoes, it’s what potatoes represent to the bigger powers at play: a loss of profit.

    I don’t understand why otherwise intelligent adults eagerly accept this kind of negative advertising without stopping to take a broader perspective and consider who is actually benefiting from it, and to be honest I’m very frustrated by it. Who actually, truly cares about your health and the health of your family? Call me cynical, but I doubt it’s the government or the companies trying to sell you their product.

    If we must look to outside sources to help us decide what lifestyle choices are best for us, I hope in the future we can be more discerning and stop allowing the mischievous money-makers to run amok.

    Thank you very much.

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  • Jenny L Porter

    Visit to discover some research facts that may be the underlining basis for this food fight that not only includes potatoes but cauliflower, green tomatoes, all peppers, spices made from peppers, eggplant, berries, instant tea, etc. Nightshade toxin is ingested in a few of approximately 2300 plants that have the naturally occurring poison. Most common appears to be the nicotine culprit.

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  • You can see what Dr .Walter Willett of the Harvard School of Public Health published in 2005 on the roller coaster spikes in both sugar blood level and insulin blood level when a person eats a white potato frequently. We animated his findings for anyone to see what is going on inside the body. Scary stuff!
    Judy Wilken MS

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