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Idaho potato leaders irked by absence in WIC food package

by Joan Murphy | September 09, 2010
When shoppers see new Heart Check marks on potatoes next year, the industry hopes the U.S. Department of Agriculture will notice them too and add white potatoes to the federally supported Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants & Children.

Starting in February, white potatoes will join a list of foods that have been certified to meet the American Heart Association's nutrition criteria as being low in saturated fat and cholesterol.

Consumers have been relying on the Heart Check logo since 1995 as a convenient way to browse grocery stores for foods that are high in fiber and low in sodium and fat.

"We worked very hard with AHA, and potatoes have lots of vitamins and are good for the heart," said Travis Blacker, president of the Idaho Grower Shippers Association, based in Idaho Falls. “But what upsets the potato industry is that we can have the Heart Check label on bags but we’re still fighting to have potatoes in the WIC program.”

Mr. Blacker plans to take the same message to the United Fresh Produce Association’s Washington Public Policy Conference, set for Sept. 14-16, when produce industry leaders will walk the halls of Congress to lobby on key legislative issues.

The WIC food packages provide supplemental foods designed to meet the special nutritional needs of low-income pregnant, breastfeeding, non- breastfeeding postpartum women, infants and children up to five years of age.

For the first time in 30 years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture revamped the food package through a 2007 interim final rule and added a wide variety of foods, including fruits and vegetables and whole grains.

The USDA updated the food package by focusing on nutrients that women and children were not receiving from green and orange vegetables, said Jean Daniel, spokesperson for the USDA’s Food & Nutrition Service.

“Everybody agrees white potatoes have nutrients as well,” she said, but added that USDA focused on what nutrients women and children were missing. There is evidence that people were purchasing white potatoes already. “I don’t think that’s true,” Mr. Blacker said.

Consumption of white potatoes would increase if they were part of the WIC package, he said. For example, for the price of a WIC voucher, low-income women can purchase a bag of potatoes that can be incorporated into many meals, he said.

Still, it may not be easy to sway USDA to include white potatoes for the 9 million at-risk mothers and children who access the program each month. “I’m not aware of any plan to revamp it further at this point,” Ms. Daniel said.