WASHINGTON — Families participating in a major federal nutrition program will soon receive more money to purchase fruits and vegetables but still won’t be able to use the vouchers to buy fresh white potatoes, according to new guidelines released Friday.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is continuing the exclusion of white potatoes from the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program despite an intense lobbying effort by the potato industry and lawmakers from potato-growing states, including Maine.

Under the latest guidelines, WIC will provide an additional $2 per month – on top of the current $6 per month – to pay for fresh fruits and vegetables for children.

ACTION PROMPTS REBUKE

The $4.5 billion program, which served nearly 10 million women and children last year, is also expanding to allow users to buy more whole grains – including rice and pasta – as well as yogurt and additional types of canned fish.

“It is at its core a science-based program that reflects the latest nutritional science and health science to make sure we are making the important investments in families right from birth,” Kevin Concannon, undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services at USDA, told reporters Friday.

But the USDA’s decision to keep potatoes off of the WIC-eligible list prompted a rebuke from members of Maine’s congressional delegation and the National Potato Council, the industry’s leading lobbying and trade organization on Capitol Hill.

“USDA’s decision ought to be driven by nutritional facts and food science. In that kind of review, the fresh, white potato wins, hands down,” Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said in a statement.

“The potato has more potassium than bananas, a food commonly associated with this nutrient which is important for pregnant women and new mothers. Potatoes are cholesterol-free, fat-free, and sodium-free, and can be served in countless healthy ways.”

The National Potato Council accused the USDA of falling short of its own dietary guidelines, which urge women and children to eat more starchy vegetables. The organization pledged to “continue to urge USDA to reverse its course and restore science to the WIC program.”

In 2009, the USDA left potatoes off the revised list of qualified fruits and vegetables based on a scientific panel’s recommendation. The reasoning behind the recommendation is that Americans already consume significant amounts of potatoes – 114 pounds per person in 2010 – when compared to other vegetables.

But the spud’s defenders point out that fresh potatoes are a relatively inexpensive way for low-income families to obtain potassium, fiber, protein and a host of other important vitamins and minerals, including vitamins C and B6. Collins and other lawmakers successfully fought a 2011 USDA proposal to limit the amount of starchy vegetables served during school lunches.

Concannon, who is a Maine native and former commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, said the decision to continue the potato exclusion is consistent with the Institute of Medicine recommendations.

BUMPING UP TIMELINE

But Concannon said the department is bumping up its timeline for the next review of the WIC food program by one year – potentially to the middle of 2014.

In a letter to members of Congress, Concannon wrote that the department will once again seek the advice of the Institute of Medicine “to learn if the basis for its recommendation for the exclusion of white potatoes from the WIC food packages is still supported by the most current science available.”

Other members of Maine’s congressional delegation also expressed disappointment in the decision.

Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said it was “shortsighted and misguided to exclude them from the program particularly given that less healthy options – like sugarcane – are included.”

But Douglas Greenaway, president and CEO of the National WIC Association, a nonprofit education and advocacy group, praised the department for protecting “the integrity of the science-based (food) package.”

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at:

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