The five-year fight by the potato industry to restore white potatoes to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Women, Infants and Children monthly fruit and vegetable vouchers is a step closer to victory.
The fiscal year 2014 omnibus appropriations bill, passed by Congress signed by President Obama on Jan. 17, directs the USDA to amend regulations so that all varieties of fresh, whole or cut vegetables can be included in the WIC fresh produce vouchers. If the USDA does not comply with the amendment, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack must submit a report to Congress within 15 days explaining the decision.
“For the past few years, members of Congress and their staff who have taken a close look at this issue have urged USDA to reverse its policy that prevents WIC participants from buying fresh potatoes with their program vouchers,” John Keeling, executive vice president and chief executive officer of the Washington, D.C.-based National Potato Council, said in a release. “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.”
Since 2009, WIC food packages for the estimated 9.1 million participants include monthly vouchers for fruit and vegetables that at the time ranged from $6 to $10 per participant. The combined value of those vouchers was estimated at close to $600 million per year by the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association.
In a controversial USDA regulation in 2008 that followed a recommendation of a Institute of Medicines report, white potatoes were excluded from the WIC vouchers because they were already widely consumed.
A spokesman for the USDA could not be reached Jan. 21, but Agriculture Department Nutrition Programs spokeswoman Brooke Hardison told the Wall Street Journal that the USDA will conduct the evaluation expected by Congress. Hardison did not say if the agency would include potatoes in the WIC program vouchers.