March 20, 2011

Jonathan Riskind: Potato's place on the plate defended

WASHINGTON - It is not small potatoes, say Maine farmers and politicians, that the white potato is getting the cold shoulder from the federal government.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is ignoring the potato's nutritional qualities, says U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who is helping lead a lobbying effort to preserve the good name and federal standing of a vegetable that proponents say is much more than just another starch.

Last year, the federal Women, Infants and Children program excluded the white potato as it added fruits and vegetables to WIC's modest monthly food benefits package for low-income pregnant women, postpartum mothers and children 5 and younger. Indeed, the white potato was the only vegetable excluded from the WIC-approved fruits and vegetables list.

It is hard to quantify what the exclusion will mean to Maine farmers. But it's safe to say that it would be better for Maine farmers if the potato was included as a WIC-approved vegetable than to be the only vegetable excluded.

There are nearly 9 million WIC recipients. A breast-feeding mother, for instance, receives a $10 monthly voucher to help supplement the food she is able to purchase.

The growing of white potatoes is big business in Maine, the sixth-largest potato-producing state in the nation in 2010, says Tim Hobbs, director of development and grower relations for the Maine Potato Board, based in Presque Isle. Maine farmers grow about 55,000 acres of white potatoes, selling $140 million worth in 2009, he said.

Agriculture Department officials say they are not bashing potatoes. But in studying the issue of improving the nutrition of food WIC allows beneficiaries to purchase, the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine recommended a focus on green, leafy vegetables, orange vegetables and whole grains.

And relatively inexpensive potatoes, it seems, already were being bought by WIC-eligible mothers in large quantities -- another reason the USDA didn't feel pressed to include the potato in a voucher package meant to supplement the food supplies of low-income mothers.

In any case, it appears the WIC war is essentially over, with the comment period done and final regulations about to be formally adopted.

The battle now is shifting to the federal school lunch and breakfast programs, also overseen by the Agriculture Department.

And in proposing new food guidelines for those programs, which offer free and reduced-price meals to low-income children, the USDA wants to limit to one cup a week the amount of starchy vegetables -- potatoes, peas and corn -- that can be served as part of the school lunch program. It would ban the potato completely from the breakfast program.

The comment period for this proposed rule ends April 13, and the new guidelines likely will be in effect by the 2012-13 school year, Agriculture Department officials say.

It is, again, hard to track the direct financial impact on Maine farmers of going from a school lunch/breakfast program with no limits on potatoes to one with severe limits, Hobbs says.

But, "It won't be good and we certainly will feel it," Hobbs said. "We are putting a lot of effort into getting this reversed because we know it will have some impact, we just don't know how to measure it yet."

The school lunch program serves about 32 million children each day and spends about $9.8 billion a year to do so. The breakfast program serves about 12 million children daily at a cost of about $3.1 billion.

At a March 10 hearing of the Senate Appropriation Committee's agriculture subcommittee, Collins -- who is from Aroostook County, Maine's potato country -- questioned Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack about the potato decisions.

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