Potatoes get a bum rap. Like any food that’s fried in oil, french fries and potato chips should be eaten in moderation, but that does not mean that eating potatoes is unhealthy. They are a source of dietary fiber, potassium and vitamin C, among other benefits. They are also an inexpensive vegetable that’s easy to cook and should be a part of a balanced diet.
So we were disappointed the U.S. Department of Agriculture, acting on the advice of a scientific panel, excluded white potatoes from the list of groceries subsidized by the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program. That doesn’t mean, however, that we support the industry’s efforts to lobby furiously to get its product back on the list, or the championing of the cause by members of Maine’s congressional delegation.
Bad nutrition is a source of many of the nation’s most persistent health problems, from diabetes to heart disease, and government programs such as WIC should be used to leverage the best habits to keep people healthy. Food-industry interests already have had outsize influence on American policy, and we are all paying the price.
WIC is a supplemental nutrition program, meaning that it is used to make sure that certain healthy foodstuffs are available to pregnant women and families with young children. Potatoes — unfortunately, mostly in their fried form — are already a part of the American diet, and they don’t need a nudge from a government program to remind people to eat them.
The potato industry admits that it’s less worried about the business it would lose than the bad publicity it would get from being left off the WIC list of healthy foods. But using the political muscle of the combined forces of the congressional delegations from the potato-producing states is not the right solution.
There is a better way. The rise of obesity coincides with the decline in home cooking. In 1970, the typical American family spent about 26 percent of its food budget eating out. By 2010, that number had grown to 41 percent. This has had a negative impact on Americans’ health.
A recent study funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that 96 percent of restaurant entrees exceeded USDA-recommended calorie guidelines. In the last 20 years, the childhood obesity rate has doubled, while the teenage obesity rate has tripled, according to the Centers for Disease Control. These young people will have lifelong health problems created by the eating habits they grew up with.
There is an opportunity for potato growers to promote their product by educating the public about tasty and nutritious ways to prepare it. Money spent lobbying for access to the WIC program could be better used encouraging people to eat potatoes at home in ways and in quantities that promote good health.
Potatoes are not the problem, but letting industry rewrite nutrition problems to avoid bad publicity is bad policy.
The USDA should make its WIC list based on the best scientific advice, and the department should work with growers to educate the public about the real value of potatoes.