Sunday, April 20, 2014
WASHINGTON — A political tug-of-war is playing out quietly on Capitol Hill, pitting a $4 billion industry against health and nutrition groups.
Potatoes, Maine’s top crop, tumble down a conveyor at Green Thumb Farms in Fryeburg.
Photos by Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer
Manuel Hernandez, left, and Victor Reyes inspect and toss the potatoes off the production line that don’t meet high standards at Green Thumb Farms as they head to the bagging machine.
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.
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Fingerling potatoes are boxed and prepared for shipping at Green Thumb Farms.
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Luis Reyes, left, Salvador Herrera and Roberto Hernandez take the bags off the bagging line and stack them on a pallet at Green Thumb Farms.