As a native of Aroostook County, I know how important the Maine potato industry is to the families and communities it sustains. As a member of the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, I am committed to ensuring that federal food policies recognize the value of this affordable and highly nutritious vegetable.
In recent years, unfortunately, the white potato has been under an unwarranted attack by the U.S. Department of Agriculture based on flawed science and outdated consumption data. Four years ago, I led the fight to overturn a misguided USDA rule that would have strictly limited servings of white potatoes in the National School Lunch Program, and would have banned potatoes altogether from the National School Breakfast Program. With the help of Maine food scientists, school nutrition experts, and farmers, we successfully prevented this arbitrary limitation.
Building on that victory, I have been working to end the needless exclusion of fresh white potatoes from the Department of Agriculture’s Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC, food program. WIC is an invaluable supplemental food program designed to meet the special nutritional needs of low-income pregnant women, new mothers, infants, and children up to five years of age who are at nutritional risk. Inexpensive and packed with vital nutrients, the white potato is a perfect fit for WIC.
The recently enacted 2015 federal funding bill includes my provision that the Senate expects USDA to change its arbitrary decision to exclude the fresh white potato from the WIC program, the only fresh vegetable to be excluded. My provision also specifies that vegetables with added sugars, fats, or oils cannot be purchased using WIC vouchers. In addition, USDA is required to review the entire WIC food package, including an evaluation of the nutrient value of all vegetables, to determine the long-term inclusion or exclusion of any fresh fruit or vegetable.
Our cause received a major boost early this month with a report by the Institutes of Medicine recommending that USDA allow fresh, white potatoes to be eligible for purchase under the WIC program, consistent with the most current 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommendations. The independent, nonprofit Institutes of Medicine is the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences.
The USDA’s decision ought to be driven by nutritional facts and the latest, accurate food science. In that kind of review, the fresh, white potato wins, hands down. The potato has more potassium than bananas, a food commonly associated with this nutrient, which is important for pregnant women and new mothers. 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.
The Institutes of Medicine review states that increased consumption of fresh, white potatoes could improve potassium intake for both women and children. It concludes with the recommendation that USDA allow white potatoes as a WIC-eligible vegetable.
The USDA’s ill-advised assault on the white potato seems to be driven by concern that children eat too many French fries and potato chips. I agree, but there are so many other ways to prepare this excellent vegetable – baked, boiled, roasted, in soups, chowders, and stews, to name but a few. For example, Maine school food service administrators tell me that many kids rave for baked potato bars where they can top potatoes with broccoli, shaved carrots, beans, chives, vegetarian chili, and salsa. Instead of prohibiting the purchase of the fresh potato, USDA should encourage its healthy preparation as it can help improve the nutrient intake and diet quality of WIC participants.
One of my first jobs growing up in Caribou was picking potatoes for a local farmer. That is hard work. In Washington, I will continue to work hard for an industry that does so much for the economy of our State and for the good nutrition of all Americans.