Support science, not potato special interests [Commentary]

Next week, the Senate Appropriations Committee will decide whether to allow special interests — rather than science — to determine which foods can be provided through the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC).

WIC, celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, currently serves more than half of all infants born in the United States and more than 146,000 women and children here in Maryland. The WIC food package provides nutrition and breastfeeding support to low-income and nutritionally vulnerable pregnant and breastfeeding moms and children up to five years of age. The effect of nutritional deficiencies on young children can be devastating and enduring. Whether children are well-nourished during their first years of life can have a profound effect on their health, as well as their abilities to learn, communicate, think analytically, socialize and adapt to new environments and people.


Yet, the scientific integrity of the WIC program is at risk of being derailed by special interests.

After multiple failed attempts, the potato industry is once again leading a charge to allow white potatoes in WIC food packages, despite more than eight years of research conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Institute of Medicine determining that WIC participants already consume enough potatoes in their diets. In a statewide survey among Maryland WIC participants, 15 percent of 6- to 8-month olds and 24 percent of 9- to 12-month olds consumed white potatoes, often French fries, the previous day, making white potatoes the most frequently consumed vegetable among infants not receiving commercial baby foods.


WIC does not — nor is it intended to — provide a full market basket of foods; it provides key nutrients that scientists have determined are lacking in the diets of women and young children.

Next week, the Senate Appropriations Committee is expected to consider language in the Agriculture Department's appropriations bill that puts members of Congress — rather than nutrition experts using evidence-based science — in charge of determining which foods should or should not be included in WIC food packages.

In a recent letter to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, several senators (most from potato growing or processing states) extol the health benefits of white potatoes and urge Mr. Vilsack "to take immediate action to remedy the unwarranted exclusion of white potatoes in the WIC food package."

If Congress begins deciding which foods to include and exclude in WIC in defiance of scientific research, the floodgates will be open in the years ahead for other legislators to demand including products that serve special interests and not the nutritional needs of women, infants and children. Women and children enrolled in WIC are among the nation's most vulnerable; their health should not be jeopardized by politics.

As chair of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski has played a key role in protecting the highly effective WIC program so that it continues to be science-based and evidence-driven. Senator Mikulski is a fighter and a longtime champion of children; as pediatricians, pediatric psychologists and Maryland residents, we applaud her for standing up for the interests of women, infants and children.

As her committee votes on a spending bill next week, we encourage her colleagues to follow her example and vote "no" on opening the floodgates to special interests, not nutrition experts, determining what our nation's nutrition programs provide for women, infants and children.

Dr. Renee E. Fox is a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Federal Government Affairs; her email is Dr. Tina L. Cheng is chief of the division of general pediatrics and adolescent medicine at Johns Hopkins Children's Center, and Maureen Black is a professor in the Department of Pediatrics, Division of Growth and Nutrition, at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

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