Sometimes, I just don’t understand governmental policy. Take for example, the federal WIC program, which has decided to keep fresh white potatoes out of the cooking pots of poorer mothers.

WIC, short for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, issues vouchers each month that allow low-income pregnant women and mothers with infants and young children up to age 5 to buy specific, nutrient-rich foods.

According to the National WIC Association, about 5,700 infants in Maine, along with more than 14,000 young children and nearly 5,500 pregnant, postpartum and breastfeeding mothers benefited from the program each month in 2012. Each participant received, on average, $55.23 monthly benefits.

The WIC fruit and vegetable food basket includes any variety of fresh or cut fruit and any variety of fresh, whole or cut vegetables including orange yams and sweet potatoes. But don’t look for white potatoes. They’re banned from the WIC food basket.

The boiling potato dispute has nothing to do with its nutritional value. Potatoes contain potassium, fiber, protein and a host of other important vitamins and minerals, including vitamins C and B6. Potatoes provide more potassium than bananas. They contain more protein and fiber than many other vegetables. They’re cholesterol-free, fat-free and sodium-free. Eating baked potatoes with their skin on is a good nutritional choice.

U.S. Department of Agriculture is obligated to base federal nutritional programs on sound science and the latest nutritional data, which are in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The rules, written by the USDA, state that the dietary intakes of potassium, dietary fiber, calcium and vitamin D are “low enough to be of public concern for both adults and children.” So it makes perfect sense for USDA to promote good sources of these critical nutrients, including fresh white potatoes.

Maine, as a potato-producing state, has a stake in the simmering potato debate. Potatoes were the state’s top crop in 2012, worth $141 million or roughly 20 percent of the total farm receipts.

Economics, however, is not the driving force for the potato farmers’ involvement. When the USDA disallowed fresh white potatoes in the WIC program, it created a perception to the general public that potatoes aren’t healthy and don’t have nutritional value. This is a disservice to Maine potato farmers, who produce a nutritional, wholesome inexpensive food source.

It’s also a disservice to the dozens of Maine farmers who accept WIC vouchers at their farm stands and farmers’ markets. They need to tell their WIC customers their fresh white potatoes, often dug from their fields only a few hours before, are not eligible.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, play leading roles in placing the fresh white potato in the WIC program. Thanks to their work on their respective Senate Appropriations Committee and House Appropriations Committee, it’s getting closer. Both committees have language to include all fresh vegetables in the program.

Banning fresh white potatoes from the WIC food menu is a disservice to low-income mothers trying to find healthy, fresh affordable food options for their families. These mothers should be able to decide on their own what fresh fruit and vegetables to buy to feed their families.

Jon Olson, of Mount Vernon, is executive secretary of the Maine Farm Bureau Association, the state’s largest farm organization.

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