Mainers understand the value of our potato industry to many of our communities and our state's economy. But we also get that it can be a nutritional food to eat. Unfortunately the folks in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) don't get it.
In fact, USDA recently excluded the white potato from a program designed to help pregnant, low-income mothers and soon to be mothers buy food to feed their children. This needs to be fixed not only because it's the right thing to do, but also because it would promote an industry and crop that is very important to Maine's economy.
The program at issue is called the Women, Infants and Children Program, or WIC for short. And it was recently updated through the arcane rulemaking process that all federal agencies go through. More specifically, in 2007, the USDA revised the Supplemental Nutrition Program for WIC to make fruits and vegetables eligible for WIC vouchers. Surprisingly to many, white potatoes were singularly excluded from WIC despite providing a significant amount of key nutrients at a cost significantly less than many other fruits and vegetables.
White potatoes were excluded largely because the USDA determined that most people already eat enough of the vegetable. Neither nutritional science, commonsense or good public policy supports this decision. The exclusion of white potatoes from WIC is particularly unacceptable when you consider that some vegetables with nutrition profiles inferior to white potatoes made the cut.
But the USDA can't just make the change themselves and be done with it. Thankfully there is a public comment period, which gives all of us the ability to express approval or disapproval of new federal actions.
And receive public comments they did. USDA heard from the nutritional community, WIC providers and the potato industry urging a modification of the rule to make white potatoes eligible for WIC vouchers. I joined 22 of my colleagues from around the country in sending a bipartisan letter of concern to USDA Secretary Vilsack. And a bipartisan group of Senators, including Senators Snowe and Collins, followed suit soon after. Both letters urged Secretary Vilsack to carefully consider both the quality and quantity of comments received by USDA that support including white potatoes in the WIC voucher program.
Unfortunately, the public comment period for the interim rule to include fruits and vegetables in WIC recently closed.
But thankfully, even this is not the last word on the issue. Under federal rulemaking procedures the interim rule is kind of like a trial balloon that allows the agency to continue receiving public comment prior to putting out a final rule, which is expected in February 2011.
That's why it is so important for the USDA to continue to hear from people concerned about the exclusion of white potatoes from WIC. I would like to encourage Mainers to send me letters and emails in order to continue pressing our case for a rule change. While nothing is guaranteed, if we produce a show of force to USDA we stand a better chance of reversing this deficient new federal rule. Doing so would not only help low-income women and children, but also provide a boost to Maine's potato producers and our economy.