The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) is an extremely successful federally-funded nutrition program with a solid track record of improving nutrition and health for low-income mothers and young children with or at risk for developing nutrition-related health issues. Good nutrition, breastfeeding support, and referrals to health care and social services are the cornerstones of WIC. The foods WIC provides were rigorously selected through a science-based process to provide items that tend to be lacking in the diets of the low-income mothers and young children served by the program.
White potatoes are not currently an allowed food in the WIC program. The potato industry has taken issue with this and their lobbyists have been pushing Congress hard to require that the white potato become a WIC food. The WIC community, public health, and anti-hunger organizations have been pushing back and oppose these efforts to override the science-based process for selecting WIC foods.
The fight has escalated as potato industry lobbyists have turned their focus to the Agriculture Appropriations Bill and to the FARMM Bill, hoping to use these legislative vehicles to force white potatoes into the WIC food package. If they are successful, they could compromise the integrity and effectiveness of a program grounded in nutrition science. If Congress sends a signal that determining WIC foods is at their discretion, the door will fly open for other, potentially unhealthy foods, to be forced into the WIC food package.
A rigorous scientific review process by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) determined which healthy foods are included in the WIC food package. White potatoes were deemed unnecessary for supplementation by WIC because they were already the most sufficiently consumed vegetable, frequently as French fries.
Participants receive a monthly voucher ($10 for women and $6 for children) to purchase fruit and vegetables. To make sure those vouchers are used to purchase fruits and vegetables that tend to be lacking in their diets—like leafy green, red and orange vegetables—white potatoes may not be bought. Since WIC’s founding 40 years ago, Congress has left the science to the scientists and has never interfered with selecting which foods the WIC Program should provide. For WIC advocates, “potatoes” are not the issue, here. The real issue is that the potato industry and some members of Congress are attempting to circumvent the scientific review process.
The potato industry says there is new science. It would be fine for Congress to direct the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees WIC, to consider the latest science when they conduct their next science-based review of WIC foods, which must begin no later than next year. But the potato industry wants a mandate that potatoes be offered immediately without a science-based review.
If Congress is really interested in helping WIC mothers and young children improve their nutritional status with limited resources, they should leave science to the scientists and focus on insuring that WIC is fully funded to serve all eligible mothers and young children, that there is adequate funding to support breastfeeding peer counselors to help mothers initiate and improve breastfeeding duration for the sake of their infants’ health, and fund implementation of electronic benefit transfer (EBT) to assure program integrity and speed and improve WIC customer transactions in the retail store.
Americans, by a three to one margin in a 2012 released public opinion poll, support the WIC mission. Since the program’s inception in 1974, WIC has consistently and successfully improved health outcomes in the population it serves. Members of Congress should leave the science of the WIC food package to the nutrition science professionals.
Tell Congress to stop meddling in the science of the WIC food package and to wait for the 2015 Institute of Medicine review.
Photo credit: Zoofari