Never heard of the "potato lobby"? Well it exists -- and their representatives are weighing in with big dollars -- $120,000 last year alone, to undermine one the nation's most effective nutrition programs for pregnant women and young children.
Formally called the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, better known as WIC, this program was proposed by doctors and championed in the Congress by late Senator Hubert Hubert Humphrey. Since 1972, WIC has been providing nutritious foods and nutrition education, promoting breast feeding and making referrals to health and social services for low income pregnant women, new mothers and children from birth through 4 years of age. Nearly nine million enrollees benefit from WIC services every year.
And, clearly, these efforts have paid off.
Studies have shown that at a federal cost of less than $45 per month per individual, poor and near poor pregnant women and children participating in WIC show much improved nutritional status and have significantly greater access to health care. And in addition to the inherent value of improved health and nutrition, there has also been a considerable savings in health care costs for WIC participants. This is due in large part to healthier births and reduced medical care needs among babies whose mothers participated in WIC.
One of the principal keys to the great success of WIC has been that the foods - and related services - offered under the program have been based strictly on scientific information and relevant research and are tailored to the specific dietary needs of participants .
In fact, throughout the 42-year history of the WIC program, whether Congress was controlled by Democratic or Republican majorities, members of Congress have rejected industry lobbying pressures to dictate which specific foods WIC offers. Legislators from both parties have always held that science must trump parochial political interests or industry profits when the health of vulnerable Americans is concerned.
Now the potato industry and its allies in the Senate want to use the fiscal year 2015 agriculture appropriations bill to intervene in a science-based review of WIC foods by the Institute of Medicine by mandating that WIC must allow the purchase of white potatoes no matter what the nutrition experts say. This would leave WIC participants who buy potatoes with less money to purchase far more nutritious vegetables that their diets often lack. White potatoes, high in starch and low in nutrients, are expressly excluded from the list of WIC approved supplemental foods because Americans already consume too many starchy vegetables.
But the fact that white potatoes are of limited nutritional value is hardly the main concern here. More importantly, should the potato lobbyists be successful, it would seriously undermine the important precedent that scientists and doctors should determine the inclusion of particular foods in the WIC program, not Congress. If Congress violates this precedent, it would open the door to more lobbying for particular foods.
Our best science shows that proper nutrition in utero and during the first few years of life is absolutely critical to optimal mental and physical development. If we allow profit and politics to undermine the WIC program, we may put millions of already vulnerable children at greater risk than they already are. What's at stake is their ability to develop and succeed in school, ready to join the 21st Century workforce.
The U.S. faces untold challenges in the years ahead. Staying competitive economically and remaining at the forefront of innovation as a major world power is no longer a given. Caring for, educating and investing in children should be our major focus in thinking about where we are going as a nation.
Should we call it irony or the worst of days when Congress is too dysfunctional to accomplish anything useful, but manages to cobble together a bi-partisan kumbaya coalition for the potato lobby?