Last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a final rule for what must and may be in the WIC food packages that state agencies establish for their supplemental nutrition assistance to low-income pregnant women, mothers and young children.
This is altogether good news for the more than 8.6 million moms and kids the program serves — and for everyone who cares about children’s health.
Research indicates that the nutrition aid, health screenings and related referrals that WIC provides help ensure that babies don’t come into the world with high mortality risks, e.g., premature, weighing dangerously little.
And a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that improvements in the WIC food packages may help explain the marked drop in obesity among young children. Now USDA has set the stage for more.
Mothers will have a wider range of dairy and whole grain choices and an additional $2.00 a month to buy fruits and vegetables for their kids. They’ll be able to buy them for older infants, instead of baby food versions.
What they won’t be able to do is use their coupons to buy white potatoes — not a new exclusion. But the potato industry is outraged. “We can’t have the federal government perpetuating … negative stereotypes,” says the head of the National Potato Council.
Members of Congress have leaped to the defense of the allegedly maligned — but oft eaten — white potato.
Last year, four Senators tried to get the white potato into WIC packages by amending the then-evolving Farm Bill.
Failing that, Idaho Senator Mike Simpson stuck a provision into this year’s budget bill that requires the Secretary of Agriculture to order all state agencies to put the white potato into their WIC packages — or explain why he wouldn’t.
The Secretary instead initiated a new IOM review of the WIC food packages. Not good enough. Twenty Senators recently wrote him to “urge … immediate action to remedy the unwarranted exclusion of white potatoes.”
Echoing talking points from the NPC, they allege that IOM used outdated dietary guidelines and ignored the fiber and other nutrients that make white potatoes such a healthful thing to eat.
No one, of course, is claiming that white potatoes lack any nutritional value. The issue is rather whether mothers and young children should eat more of them than they already do. The IOM concluded that they ate plenty.
Our bipartisan potato defenders — many of them recipients of NPC campaign contributions — now seem poised to take matters into their own hands.
David Rogers at Politico reports that lead Republicans on the Senate Appropriations Committee plan to put a white potato mandate into the USDA appropriations bill. He (reasonably) expects support from enough Democrats to pass it.
We’ll probably see a similar — perhaps also bipartisan — maneuver in the House.
This isn’t just another instance of a well-funded special interest getting its way. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says, Congress has never required WIC to include — or exclude — any particular food.
Not that members haven’t tried. Back in the late 1990s, for example, both Senators from Kellogg’s home state pushed for the mandatory inclusion of the company’s Raisin Bran, which exceeded the WIC sugar limit.
So you see what this white potato campaign could lead to. The president of the Children’s Health Fund asks, only half-jokingly, “Will Big Twinkie soon claim underrpresentation in toddlers’ diets too?”
It’s not only WIC — and the young children whose health it supports — that are endangered by such meddling.
In 2011, Congress blocked a change in the nutrition standards for school lunches that would have kept schools from counting pizza as a vegetable based on the tiny bit of tomato paste used to make the sauce. It also deferred a phased-in reduction of sodium in the meals schools served.
And — wouldn’t you know? — it kept USDA from limiting servings of starchy vegetables, e.g., white potatoes.
Now House Republicans are reportedly considering again using the agriculture appropriations bill to block rules implementing other improvements in school meal programs that Congress authorized when it renewed the Child Nutrition Act.
And again apparently some bipartisanship. Seems that our concerned policymakers would prefer to let schools continue serving white rice, white bread and other foods made wholly with bleached flour, rather than more healthful whole-grain alternatives.
They object to new standards for “competitive foods,” i.e. those sold on school grounds in vending machines, snack bars and the like.
Heaven forfend students shouldn’t be able to make a lunch of chips and a candy bar, washed down with a soda — and schools to make money on them, as some administrators say they have.
At least some of the policymakers are responding to administrators’ complaints — not only the revenue losses, but more food waste because kids don’t take to the whole-grain pasta and/or the fruits and veggies. Some also fret about the higher costs of serving healthier meals.
But studies suggest that kids will adjust to the healthier meals over time. And if USDA’s reimbursement rates aren’t high enough, Congress can increase them.
This is an appropriate role for our elected officials. Overriding science-based rules that will improve child nutrition isn’t.