WASHINGTON — Idaho's congressional delegation is fighting a U.S. Department of Agriculture decision that prohibits poor women from buying potatoes with the money they get each month to buy nutritious food.
It's a long shot, but they hope that they can change the farm bill as it works its way through Congress this week. The bill, which has been stalled in Congress, is supposed to be finished this week.
"What the USDA is trying to do is provide more fruits and vegetables in the program ... and they have excluded white potatoes despite the fact that they're a pretty nutritious food," said Susan Wheeler, a spokeswoman for Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho. "It doesn't make a great deal of sense."
The USDA decided late last year to prohibit potatoes in its Women, Infants and Children feeding program, which is changing its guidelines to allow participants to buy more produce with their monthly stipends. The WIC program gives poor women extra money, typically about $40 each month, to buy nutritious foods while they're pregnant, nursing or tending to infants.
The program, which began in 1974, provides extra nutrition to an estimated 8 million people each year. Most states give mothers vouchers to buy specific types of food designed to supplement their diets and their children's diets.
The USDA decided not to include potatoes because a study found that many poor people already base their diet on them. The study, by the Institute of Medicine, looked at what sort of foods WIC participants were already eating and what sort of nutrients they were lacking.
But potatoes are the only vegetable not included on the USDA list, and Idaho's potato growers are fighting the exclusion.
"The rationale is that they're already widely available and people are already eating them," said Frank Muir, president and CEO of the Idaho Potato Commission. "To me, that's kind of backwards thinking. We have to focus on science, and one of the most nutrient-dense foods is the potato, and it's very economical. It's a near-perfect food."
A lot of money is at stake. The new WIC guidelines will shift about $500 billion toward new spending on produce, said John Keeling, a lobbyist for the National Potato Council.
Keeling said it's unlikely that the lobby is going to get its hoped-for changes in the farm bill this week. The most it might get is language in the bill that urges the USDA to include potatoes in the WIC program.
Eleven senators, including Crapo and Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, are encouraging farm bill negotiators to include the language. Both of Idaho's congressmen, Reps. Bill Sali and Mike Simpson, signed on to similar letters.
Growers are also trying to persuade the USDA to change its newly issued rules.
Potato growers say they fear that keeping spuds off the list sends the wrong message to people in a federally sponsored nutrition program. The message — that potatoes aren't good for you — is going to women as they're learning about nutrition and teaching their children healthy eating habits, Keeling said.
"WIC is an educational program; it's a teaching program. What are we teaching them?" Keeling said. "From a public policy perspective, you're saying to WIC participants, 'We favor you using these dollars for purchasing radishes rather than potatoes.'"