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Keep Nutrition Science in the WIC Program | Commentary

The IOM’s second major task was to determine which healthy foods are typically lacking in the diets of low-income mothers and children. The IOM report found that low-income children consumed more starchy vegetables than the Dietary Guidelines recommended, and that over 80% of starchy vegetables consumed were white potatoes. It also found that children under-consumed every other type of vegetable. In fact, white potatoes were the most widely consumed vegetable and made up more than 40 percent of young children’s total vegetable intake.

Here is the key issue: WIC provides foods that are both healthy and lacking in the diets of pregnant women and children. Based on the IOM’s findings, white potatoes are not “lacking” in the diets of the target population—quite the opposite—and the decision not to include them on the list of foods covered by WIC vouchers is consistent with the program’s goals. WIC provides only $10 per month to purchase fruits and vegetables for women and $6 per month for children. Every dollar spent on white potatoes is a dollar not spent on other fruits and vegetables, such as leafy greens, that provide a wide array of essential nutrients. And this isn’t to say that white potatoes are unhealthy. They contain several vitamins and minerals and are, of course, still available for purchase by WIC mothers using their personal grocery funds or SNAP benefits.

Three years ago, we made a similar appeal when Congress interfered with a USDA proposal to limit starchy vegetables such as white potatoes in the National School Lunch Program. Today, we have the same response: These important decisions should be science-based. Given our nation’s costly and debilitating epidemic of nutrition-related chronic diseases such as obesity and diabetes, we must seize every opportunity to promote sound nutrition. As former elected and appointed officials, we recognize that members of Congress want to protect the economic interests of their constituents. But it is equally important to protect their constituents’ health interests. They can do so by ensuring that WIC food packages continue to be based on the latest science. When the Senate Appropriations Committee reviews the 2015 USDA budget, we urge its members to respect the Institute of Medicine’s recommendations for the foods to be included in the WIC program. To do otherwise would undermine the science-based process.

Dan Glickman served as secretary of Agriculture from 1995 until 2001 and as chairman and CEO of the Motion Picture Association from 2004-2010. He currently serves as a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center. Ann M. Veneman served as secretary of Agriculture from 2001 until 2005 and executive director of UNICEF from 2005 to 2010. They are co-chairs of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Nutrition and Physical Activity Initiative.

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