Po-tay-toe, po-ta-toe? Either Way, a Less Healthy WIC

Nutrition

This week the U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Committee passed an amendment to the FY 2014 Agriculture Appropriations Bill that would allow for fresh white potatoes to be included in the WIC food package.

The United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) provides federal grants to states for food assistance, health care referrals, and nutrition education for low-income pregnant and postpartum women, as well as infants and children up to age 5 who are found to be at nutritional risk.

For 40 years WIC has functioned successfully as a federal nutrition assistance program, improving health and birth outcomes for women and children. WIC’s success is based partially on the fact that the program depends on research and science-based information to determine which foods can most improve and supplement the diets of women and children by providing foods that are noticeably absent from their current diets. Since the inception of WIC in 1972, Congress has not interfered with the selection of foods to be included in the food packages provided to women and children. But all of this changed with the white potato amendment.

Previously, white potatoes have not been included in the WIC food package because evidence shows that Americans already consume well over the recommended amount and have no issue consuming and accessing the vegetable or incorporating it, in any form, into their regular diets. Research also shows that white potatoes are the most frequently consumed vegetables among two-and-three-years-olds.

As research reveals, white potatoes are consumed in excess, so it is unfortunate that this amendment was included in the FY 2014 Agriculture Appropriations bill that will go the House floor later this summer. It has been determined that French fries and other forms of fried potatoes account for 18.5 percent of all vegetable consumption and that when combined with other starchy vegetables, the total consumption amount for starchy vegetables is 31.6 percent. The recommended consumption rate is only 26.8 percent.

White potatoes are an unnecessary addition to WIC’s food package and Congress’ intervention to include one single item sets up a bad precedence that may lead to other items being added and legislated into nutrition packages without sound nutrition and science based evidence for its inclusion.

In addition, this amendment was included in a funding bill which does not have jurisdiction even over reauthorizing programs, but is only tasked with to funding programs at an appropriate level for the upcoming fiscal year. The addition of items being legislative into the food package undermines WIC’s scientific thought processes in determining which foods are necessary for needy women and children.

First Focus Campaign for Children does not support Congress overruling what has been scientifically substantiated for years and we vigorously oppose the decision to include white potatoes in the WIC food package. And this is on top of the fact that the bill passed by the House Appropriations Committee underfunds the WIC program. This legislation provides $214 million less for the WIC program in FY 2014 compared to FY 2013. The lower WIC funding brings the bill in line with lower overall funding allocations made under the House-passed FY 2014 budget resolution. The bill specifies that funding to serve the immediate needs of current WIC participants is to be prioritized, but the lower funding level will force USDA to deplete the WIC contingency fund, leaving no reserve funds to accommodate and unexpected increases in food costs or increases in need driven by economic conditions. In addition, there will be no funding for a current WIC program that helps new mothers breastfeed their babies and no funding available for a congressionally-mandated initiative to modernize WIC, by moving the program from paper eligibility cards to more secure electronic cards.

We urge the Unite States Senate Committee on Agriculture Appropriations to provide full funding for the WIC program, and also to reject adding such provisions that undermine the science and integrity of the program when the committee marks up their version of a FY2014 Agriculture Appropriations bill next week. Although Congress may not fully enact single appropriations bills, we urge Congress to not include policy changes that undermine the integrity of the program and to fully fund the WIC program in whatever funding package is completed in order for WIC to continue to successfully operate in FY2014 and meet the needs of low income women and children.