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Nutrition assistance benefits for low-income pregnant women and nursing mothers can only be spent on certain, particularly nutritious foods. But the House is stepping in to urge that one specific food be added to that list over the protests of scientists: white potatoes. Potatoes have real political muscle behind them:
Although the Obama administration has tried on a few occasions to limit the amount of money the government spends on feeding people white potatoes, lawmakers from the roughly 40 potato-growing states, backed by the potato lobby, have worked to turn back those efforts. They voted to thwart the Agriculture Department's 2011 recommendation that french fries only be served twice a week in federally subsidized school lunches.
Now, the House included a measure in its budget bill calling for Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to put white potatoes on the approved list for WIC or explain why. According to a potato spokesman, it's not that the National Potato Council wants to sell more potatoes to WIC recipients, it's just battling "the perception that potatoes are not as nutritionally valuable as other vegetables and fruits." Which is a case you could possibly make, if most potatoes were consumed baked or boiled with little added fat, instead of as french fries. Here's the best part, though:
In 2012, more than 70 Republican and Democratic members of the House wrote Vilsack to promote the nutrition benefits of potatoes and protest their omission in WIC, saying it sends the wrong message to low-income mothers and "suggests a 'government knows best' mentality inconsistent with individual choice and promotion of self-responsibility."
They're not wrong! But WIC is basically a paternalistic program top to bottom. The details of approved foods lists very from state to state, but in red Alabama and blue New York alike, WIC can be used for 100 percent fruit juice but not lemonade, specific kinds of cheese not including shredded cheese or mixed cheeses, Cheerios but not Honey Nut Cheerios, large but not extra large eggs, brown rice but not white rice, and so on. If lawmakers are only discovering their outrage over this program being "inconsistent with individual choice and promotion of self-responsibility" when it comes to a product grown in their states and widely turned into junk food, with all the promotional muscle that implies, that outrage looks ... less than purely liberty-focused, let's say. Almost like they're more concerned for potato growers than either individual choice or the nutrition of WIC recipients.
How totally out of character for Congress, right?
Originally posted to Laura Clawson on Thu Jan 16, 2014 at 09:08 AM PST.