I grew up in Aroostook County, which has been called the “Potato Capital of America.” One of my first jobs as a teenager was picking potatoes. Mainers are proud of our potato industry, which has made major contributions to nutrition as well as to the economy of the County and our state for more than two centuries.
The fresh, white 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 healthy recipes. It has never made sense that the federal government excluded it from the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) supplemental food program. Worse, the white potato is the only vegetable to have been left out. It defies common-sense that vegetables with far less nutritional value, such as iceberg lettuce, are allowed in the WIC program, yet the potato is excluded.
That is why I have worked hard to change the law. I am pleased to report that I was able to successfully secure language in the recently enacted federal funding bill that will finally allow WIC recipients to purchase all fresh, healthy vegetables, including the white potato. While my provision will allow fresh, whole, or cut vegetables, including the potato, to be included in WIC, it prohibits vegetables with added sugars, fats, or oils. The provision also requires USDA to commence the next scheduled regular review of the WIC food package, including an evaluation of the nutrient value of all vegetables, to help ensure that any long-term policy is transparent and reflects the latest science.
The potato’s exclusion from the WIC program dates back to 2009 when a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) rule went into effect. Unfortunately, this rule was based on recommendations of the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) report – which used consumption data that was nearly 20 years old. In 2010, USDA updated the DGA, which recommended five to six cups per week of a certain class of vegetable, including the white potato, for women with a daily caloric intake of 1,800 to 2,400 calories. This is an increase of two to three cups per week as recommended by the outdated, 2005 DGA.
The WIC food package is designed to provide supplemental foods to meet the special nutritional needs of low-income pregnant, breastfeeding, and non-breastfeeding postpartum women, and infants and children up to five years of age who are at nutritional risk. The fresh, white potato is exactly the kind of vegetable that low-income families should have access to in order to prepare nutritious meals.
The exclusion of fresh white potatoes also sent a false message to WIC participants, and to all Americans, that the USDA believes that potatoes are not healthy. The truth is, potatoes have more potassium than bananas, a food commonly associated with this nutrient. Potatoes are cholesterol-free, fat-free, and sodium-free, and can be served in countless healthy ways. A medium baked potato contains 15 percent of the daily recommended value of dietary fiber, 27 percent of the daily recommended value for vitamin B6, and 28 percent of the daily recommended value of Vitamin C.
USDA’s decisions should be based on accurate information. Excluding the fresh, white potato from the WIC program only furthers the false impression that some people have about this healthy vegetable. This false impression not only sends the wrong message to Americans, but it also can damage Maine’s potato industry which employs thousands of people and is our state’s largest crop.
Given the sound nutritional facts and the economic implications for Maine’s potato industry, I worked hard to bring together a bipartisan coalition to finally support the potato’s inclusion in the WIC program.