(May 15, 4:39 p.m.) Lawmakers from several potato growing states have convinced a House-Senate conference committee to include report language in the farm bill recommending potatoes be included in the Women, Infants and Children food program.

Though the House and Senate passed the farm bill the week of May 12, it remains to be seen whether the U.S. Department of Agriculture will heed the legislators’ request in its final ruling.

“If the administration ignores this, they’re going to be asked why,” Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association, said after senators from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Maine, Colorado, Pennsylvania and Michigan asked the USDA to include fresh potatoes in the nutrition program. “This is going in the direction it needs to be going.”

The USDA issued an interim final rule in December saying fresh potatoes would not be eligible for purchase with vouchers, which are expected to be implemented in all states by the fall of 2009.

WIC food packages serve more than 8 million women and children, and Guenther said the addition of fresh produce to the program is expected to result in $500 million worth of fruit and vegetable purchases from program vouchers.

“That’s significant, and we want to be part of it,” said John Keeling, president of the National Potato Council.

DISCOURAGED

Not everyone was pleased with the addition to the farm bill. Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer had urged lawmakers to stay out of the debate about what commodities should be included in WIC program and leave the matter to experts.

Douglas Greenaway, executive director of the National WIC Association, was also discouraged by the legislature’s involvement.

“I’m very troubled by efforts on the part of the food industry to influence the food in the WIC package through legislative measures,” he said. “Congress should not be in the middle of this process. It should be based on science, which is why that report language is so important.”

The conference committee’s Joint Statement of Managers doesn’t specifically mention potatoes or WIC, but it does mention science.

“The managers support the inclusion of all fruits and vegetables in the federal nutrition programs where supported by science and will continue to work with the department on promoting access to all fruits and vegetables,” it says,

WHERE SUPPORTED BY SCIENCE

The phrase “where supported by science” could be pivotal. The USDA made its interim final rule based on recommendations from the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine.

Greenaway said the institute excluded potatoes because WIC mothers already have a high rate of consumption.

“They weren’t saying potatoes are bad or unhealthy,” he said. “They’re broadly consumed by Americans, and it wouldn’t be a wise use of the vouchers to include potatoes. Potato growers will be in no way harmed. WIC consumers are going to purchase potatoes anyway.”

The potato growers likely will argue that spuds are a good source of magnesium, potassium and calcium and should be included in the nutrition program.

The USDA is accepting comments on the rule until Feb. 1, 2010.

“They have it within their authority to change it in the final rule,” Keeling said.

The USDA’s Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services did not respond to an interview request before deadline.