Our Voice : Don't blame potatoes for overweight children

June 9, 2014 

Potatoes sure aren't getting the respect they deserve.

From our first lady to the New York Times, efforts to remedy the white potato's omission from the federal Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) are being bashed.

Senators from a dozen potato-friendly states want white potatoes reinstated on the list of approved foods that can be obtained through the program, designed to help poor mothers feed their children a more nutritious diet.

Spuds were deleted from WIC four years ago. At that time, the executive director of the Washington Potato Commission went on a potato-only diet, eating 20 a day for 60 days.

"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," Chris Voigt said.

The potato diet was a brilliant bit of marketing but did not sway the powers-that-be to reinstate the spud.

So now the effort is being carried by the Senate Appropriations Committee, which approved a plan to include potatoes in the WIC program with a voice vote last month. The House Appropriations Committee followed soon after.

Critics say kids already eat too many starchy vegetables like potatoes. We say kids probably eat too many fried potatoes. But there are lots of other ways to enjoy them.

Besides being tasty, potatoes have potassium and vitamins. They are filling and can help a financially struggling mother stretch a meal in a nutritious way. Potato proponents say the Agriculture Department based its decision on outdated dietary guidelines. Some argue that Congress shouldn't start dictating specific foods for the WIC program.

Both sides of the spud debate claim to have the science to back up their arguments.

Some say the senators, including those who have accepted money from potato interests, are being swayed by dollars, not science.

Here in the Northwest, we have a long love affair with the potato. We live in a top-producing potato region, and most of us grew up with potatoes as a staple on the plate. It makes sense that our senators are in support of the spud, even including top-ranking Democrats who are bucking the recommendations of the American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association on the issue.

Sure, we are concerned about childhood obesity. But the key is to get kids off the couch and moving and feed them a balanced diet that includes a mix of all food groups. Choosing healthy preparations over the deep-fried versions also goes a long way. Sweet potatoes are WIC-approved and have been the darling of the food world for a few years, but the most popular preparation is in the form of fries.

"I see some inconsistencies between the treatment of different vegetables," said Patty Murray, D-Wash. Murray's campaign fund received $1,000 from the National Potato Council last year, though we hardly think that's enough money to buy a senator's favor.

A similar battle took place in 2011, when the government proposed reducing the amount of starchy vegetables -- including corn, green peas, lima beans and potatoes -- in school lunches to one cup a week and eliminating them from breakfast options. Spuds and their starchy cohorts were victorious in the end.

In some states, WIC participants can purchase produce at farmers markets, and potatoes are OK in that venue, which is an inconsistent stand on the spud.

It seems silly that the potato debate will take an act of Congress to rectify, but singling out the spud and demonizing a specific vegetable has led to this point.

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