WASHINGTON — A political tug-of-war is playing out quietly on Capitol Hill, pitting a $4 billion industry against health and nutrition groups.
The focal point of the policy mash-up? The simple spud.
The potato industry and its supporters in Congress – including members of Maine’s delegation – are pushing hard to scrap a five-year-old policy that prevents low-income women from buying fresh potatoes with vouchers they receive through a federal nutrition program.
“As far as the economics, it’s probably not a huge deal. It is more the perception,” said Steve Crane, a Maine potato farmer and past board president of his industry’s largest lobbying arm, the National Potato Council. “We feel as though they are portraying to the general public that potatoes are not healthy and that they don’t have nutritional value.”
But defenders of the policy insist that poorer Americans already eat enough potatoes and that the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program should continue to encourage participants to use the vouchers to buy other vegetables and fruits. They also warn against the agriculture lobby gaining too much influence over nutrition policy.
“Our argument is not about potatoes; it is about the science,” said Douglas Greenaway, president and CEO of the National WIC Association, a nonprofit education and advocacy group. “It is inappropriate for industry – any industry – to use the legislative venue to dictate changes to the WIC food package.”
NUTRITIONAL VALUE NOT an ISSUE
The debate over potatoes has smoldered off and on in Congress for five years ever since the U.S. Department of Agriculture, acting on the advice of a scientific panel, wrote white spuds out of the WIC program, which helped feed nearly 9 million low-income women and children last year.
In mid-January, Congress passed a budget bill that includes language requiring the USDA to allow all types of vegetables – including white potatoes – in the WIC program or else justify any exclusion in writing to Congress. Lawmakers from Idaho, Maine, Colorado and other potato-growing states have also been working to change the policy through the multi-year farm bill slated for consideration in the coming weeks.
Maine is the ninth-ranked spud-producing state, and its potato industry and representatives to Congress have been heavily involved in those debates. In the Senate, Aroostook County native Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican, has played a leading role for several years in the policy fights over potatoes. More recently, Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree of the 1st District has worked – along with lawmakers from other potato-growing states – to change WIC policies as a member of the House Appropriations Committee.
Ironically, the debate over potatoes’ inclusion or exclusion from the WIC nutritional program has little to do with the nutritional value of the popular tuber. Potatoes contain potassium, fiber, protein and a host of other important vitamins and minerals, including vitamins C and B6.
Instead, potatoes were left off the WIC list because Americans are already buying them.
U.S. residents ate, on average, 114 pounds of potatoes per person in 2010 compared to about 10 pounds of carrots and 8 pounds of broccoli, per capita. And then there are the ways many Americans prefer their potatoes: cooked in oil for fries and potato chips, or baked but loaded up with butter, sour cream and other less-healthful additions.
USDA figures attest to Americans’ shifting palate when it comes to fresh versus processed: In 1970, 51 percent of the spuds consumed in the U.S. were prepared from fresh potatoes. By 2010, fresh potatoes accounted for just 32 percent of per-capita consumption.
In a Jan. 10 letter to the leaders of the House and Senate agriculture committees, the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Dr. James Perrin, wrote that young children already consume more potatoes than any other vegetable. Perrin urged the lawmakers to respect the science behind the USDA policy.
“One of the critical reasons WIC is such a successful program is that its food packages are based on science and enhance the diets of women and young children to provide them access to foods missing from their diets,” Perrin wrote. “Including white potatoes in the WIC program would reject scientific expertise and jeopardize the role of the program in addressing dietary deficits among women and young children.”
Others in the nutrition field disagree.
Mary Ellen Camire is a professor of food and nutrition at the University of Maine who has researched potatoes’ nutritional value as well as consumers’ attitudes toward spuds. Camire said potatoes are inexpensive, keep for long periods, are low in sodium and contain more protein and fiber than many other vegetables.
So Camire said increasing the availability of potatoes to lower-income families would be a good step.
“You always hear about fries and potato chips. People aren’t going to make those at home,” said Camire. “But they will steam them or microwave them or bake them. Potatoes are filling and they provide a lot of key vitamins and nutrients.”
MAINE HAS a STAKE IN DEBATE
The USDA distributed $4.5 billion to nearly 9 million participants in the WIC program during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. Under WIC, lower-income women who are pregnant or have young children and are at risk of malnutrition can receive modest payments of up to $16 a month to purchase fruits and vegetables.
As a potato-producing state, Maine clearly has a stake in this latest bout of “potato politics,” even if those pushing to include potatoes in WIC insist economics are not the primary driver.
Potatoes were the state’s top crop in 2012, as Maine farmers pulled up 15.6 million pounds of the potatoes worth an estimated $163 million – or roughly 23 percent of total farm receipts. By comparison, the harvest for wild blueberries – arguably Maine’s best-known agricultural commodity – was valued at roughly $75 million.
Green Thumb Farms, a 2,200-acre operation in Fryeburg, is one Maine farm that sells its potatoes to grocery stores in addition to supplying food service companies and setting aside some spuds for the family’s other venture, Cold River Vodka.
Don Thibodeau of Green Thumb Farms acknowledged he doesn’t necessarily follow the ins and outs of the debate over WIC. He leaves those policy discussions to others. But he believes allowing potato purchases with WIC would benefit both consumers and farmers.
“Any time you move a fresh product that is produced right here to people, sure that’s good,” Thibodeau said. “It’s good for farming and it’s good for us because we’re in the ‘fresh’ business. … And fresh produce is very healthy, I don’t care whether it is fresh potatoes or fresh broccoli.”
The “potato politics” battle first flared up in 2009 when the USDA revised its list of WIC-approved fruits and vegetables, sparking protests from the potato industry by leaving spuds off the menu. Two years later, the potato lobby was once again up in arms over a USDA proposal to reduce the amount of potatoes and other starchy vegetables that schools could serve at lunchtime during a week.
Collins was ultimately able to block the Obama administration’s proposal with the help of several other potato-state lawmakers, eliciting cheers from the potato lobby and jeers from those who wanted to see fewer starchy vegetables on lunch trays. Collins’ office did not respond to several requests for interviews last week.
Since that victory, the industry has continued to target its exclusion from WIC. Potato advocates scored a small victory earlier this month when they inserted language in the $1.1 trillion spending bill passed by Congress requiring the USDA to take another look at the issue, but it does not require any changes.
“We believe this sends a clear message to the USDA that they are obligated to base nutritional policy on the latest nutritional science,” said Mark Szymanski, spokesman for the National Potato Council. Szymanski added that he believes the agency will undertake a “serious examination” of the issue and that, in the end, “potatoes will be included as fresh vegetables in the program.”
As frequently happens in policy debates on Capitol Hill, both sides claim science is on their side.
Those hoping to maintain the status quo refer to a 2005 report by the National Academy of Science’s Institute of Medicine that found Americans were already eating enough potatoes and other starchy vegetables. That report served as the basis of the USDA’s revised WIC list, released in 2009.
Potato proponents often counter with another government report – this one from the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee in 2009 – that said Americans weren’t getting enough potassium, fiber and other nutrients found in abundance in starchy vegetables.
“They want more potassium in diets. Potatoes have more potassium than bananas and you can buy bananas with WIC, but you can’t buy potatoes,” said Crane, the Maine farmer who cultivates about 1,500 acres of potatoes on his family’s Crane Brothers Farm in Exeter, about 20 miles from Bangor.
But Greenaway with the National WIC Association repeated that the issue is not the nutritional value of potatoes. Americans of all income levels already eat potatoes. And because WIC is intended to supplement a low-income family’s diet – not provide all necessary nutrients – the program inevitably leaves out some healthy foods, he said.
“It’s not that we have anything against the white potato. My family came from northern Ireland,” Greenaway said. “But it is important to protect the integrity of the food package and its science-based foundation.”
INDUSTRY CRITICIZED FOR LOBBYING
The potato industry’s heavy lobbying to block the 2011 attempt to limit potatoes in school lunches and subsequent efforts on WIC have bred resentment and distrust among some health and nutrition advocates.
Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University and author of the book “Food Politics,” which chronicles what Nestle sees as the farm lobby’s intrusion on federal food policy, said Americans would be healthier if they ate more non-starchy vegetables.
Nestle also said allowing potato purchases with WIC vouchers now would be opening “a Pandora’s box of lobbyist pressures from every food product currently excluded” from the program.
“The WIC program has always focused on encouraging recipients to buy healthy foods that they might not buy otherwise,” Nestle wrote in an email. “It would be better for WIC recipients – and for American democracy – if the Maine potato industry stopped manipulating Congress and interfering with USDA nutrition programs.”
Greenaway called it “unconscionable and bad precedent to allow the food industry to dictate what is allowed in the WIC food package.”
Szymanski with the National Potato Council said his organization has tried not to make it a political issue. But growers are frustrated that they have to fight to persuade the federal government to consider potatoes on the same level as other vegetables.
“It’s unfortunate that we needed to involve politics in this whole issue, that it even had to get to this point at all,” he said.
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at: