WASHINGTON — Chris Voigt, who once ate 20 potatoes a day for 60 days in a row, says poor kids should have the right to eat more white spuds.
“The whole intent of the diet was to show that there’s so much nutrition in a potato that you could literally live off of it,” said Voigt, 49, the executive director of the Washington State Potato Commission.
With white potatoes under attack on Capitol Hill, Voigt is happy that his state’s senators, Democrats Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, are on his side, promoting one of the state’s major crops in Congress.
They’re part of a bipartisan group of 20 senators from 12 states who want white potatoes included in the list of approved foods for the federal Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children.
“I see some inconsistencies between the treatment of different vegetables,” said Murray, who got a $1,000 donation from the National Potato Council last year.
So, far the pro-potato members are carrying the day in Congress.
Last week, the Senate Appropriations Committee, of which Murray is a veteran member, approved the plan to include potatoes on a voice vote.
The House Appropriations Committee followed suit Thursday, voting 31-18 to include similar language proposed by Idaho Republican Rep. Mike Simpson.
The senators, including a half dozen who received financial contributions from the potato lobby, represent many potato-rich states: Idaho and Washington, which rank first and second in production, respectively, along with Texas, Kansas, Oregon, New York, Colorado, Maine, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Michigan and North Dakota. The proponents include Republican Sens. Michael Crapo and Jim Risch of Idaho, John Cornyn of Texas and Jerry Moran of Kansas and Democratic Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet of Colorado and Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan.
It’s an unusual position for some of the senators, including Murray and Cantwell, who are at odds with groups such as the American Diabetes Association and the American Heart Association.
Critics say kids already eat enough starch and need other fruits and vegetables, which is why the U.S. Department of Agriculture omitted white potatoes from its list of approved WIC foods four years ago.
The issue has ignited a fuss, with both sides claiming they have science backing them.
Potato lobbyists say the battle isn’t just over money, but also a chance to defend America’s top-consumed vegetable.
“For whatever reason, over the last several years potatoes have been demonized by some folks that should really know better,” said Frank Muir, the president of the Idaho Potato Commission. “When they make a conclusion saying that people are already eating enough potatoes, that’s not science-based, that’s opinion.”
Two weeks ago, The New York Times lambasted the senators in an editorial, calling them “potato heads” and accusing them of putting the interests of the potato industry over science.
Voigt, who represents 250 potato growers in Washington state, said he was amused to hear critics bemoan the power of his industry, with some referring to it as “Big Potato.”
“It’s funny, we’re kind of being portrayed like this big, bad potato lobby,” he said. “They’re trying to make our four-person National Potato Council look like Big Tobacco. . . . Their whole office is four people, and that counts the receptionist.”
The debate is part of a broader examination of nutrition and school lunch programs as Congress decides how much to spend on poor children and what foods would be best for them.
So far, Muir is optimistic.
“In Congress today, I’ve seen more bipartisan support in getting potatoes on the WIC program than on any other issue they’re facing,” he said. “If potatoes can create an environment where cooperation can take place in Washington, that’s even better.”
In a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack earlier this month, the 20 senators said the WIC program has “glaring inconsistencies,” including a provision that allows participants to buy white potatoes but only from farmers markets.
Voigt said poor families deserved better access.
“Most of the WIC mothers in Washington state don’t live next to a farmers market,” he said. “Let’s make it so the WIC mother can go down the block to her grocery store and pick it up there.”
Crapo said white potatoes had been excluded unfairly from the WIC program. He said the Agriculture Department had used outdated dietary guidelines from 2005 to make the decision.
“Congress must rectify this wrong and reverse this impractical rule,” Crapo said after last week’s vote in the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Opponents of the potato bill warn that it would be a mistake for Congress to start dictating specific foods for the WIC program.
“Congress has never before prescribed the details of federal nutrition programs – we should not start to do that now,” said Democratic Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, arguing against the plan last week when it passed the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee.
Voigt said he understood the fears of a precedent but added that Congress had no choice but to act.
“Today it could be potatoes and tomorrow, who knows, it could be cigarettes or wine or salmon or whatever _ I get that,” he said. “But it’s Congress’ duty to provide oversight over the administration when they make a fundamental scientific error, and that’s why they’re doing it.”
Industry officials contend that the administration ignored the most recent dietary guidelines, published in 2011, which called for increased consumption of the category of vegetables that includes white potatoes.
Voigt said he wanted to make a bold statement about the nutritional value of the potato when he began his two-month potato-only diet in 2010, when the Agriculture Department excluded potatoes from the WIC list.
“There’s really no doubt about how nutritious it is,” he said.
Muir, who represents Idaho growers, who account for one-third of all the potatoes grown in the United States, said he ate potatoes every day, getting the complex carbohydrates he relied on for energy and fuel.
“One of the things potatoes do is give you lots of energy,” he said. “I’m almost 59 years old, yet I run every day, I compete in martial arts, I ski, I play basketball, I still play football. Not bad for 59.”