You Say Potato, the Government Says ... No?

It's wise to promote healthier eating under government programs.

Closeup of a hot baked potato topped with sour cream, bacon, green onions and cheddar cheese.

The potato lobby isn't too happy about the government's decision to nix the tuber from the WIC program.

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Who knew root vegetables could have their own lobbyists? In Washington, that’s not such a crazy idea, as just about any interest – living or inanimate – can have its paid advocates. But the matter of the role of potatoes in Americans’ diets is a serious one.

Americans eat a lot of potatoes – more than 140 pounds per person a year, on average, working out to almost a potato a day. That makes sense. They’re cheap and filling. They’re delicious, and you can toss a bag of them in the cabinet, completely forget about them, and still find them edible a month later. The problem is that nutritionists believe Americans are eating too much of the starchy tuber, especially in the form of french fries. So when the U.S. Department of Agriculture was drawing up rules for what could be bought with coupons under the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (known as WIC), they excluded white potatoes from the list of approved fruits and vegetables.

Potatoes are fighting back – or at least, their benefactors in Washington are. Potato growers and sellers are understandably outraged that their product has been demonized, and lawmakers from potato-growing states, also understandably, want the spud taken off the proverbial vegetable terrorist list. But there’s an argument to be made that the U.S. government should be encouraging more healthful selections, at least when government money is being handed out.

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Food stamps, for example, cannot be used to buy liquor or tobacco. But should the government tell aid recipients what they can and cannot buy with the assistance? A Georgia state legislator was up in arms last year over a TV news report of a man who bought lobster with his food stamps. USDA, in fact, does not disallow the purchase of seafood and steak, Politifact reports. But with food stamps, there are market forces at play. Why waste all your assistance on such a high-priced item, especially if it means you might not be able to eat the next day? The problem with trying to get people, especially low-income people, to eat more healthful foods is that it’s much cheaper to buy processed and fried foods, and easier to prepare them. It’s very hard to eat healthfully on a tight budget.

But certain programs, such as WIC, are specifically directed at good nutrition, as opposed to keeping people from starving. We have an enormous problem with obesity in this country, and nutritional problems start in utero. It’s not right for the government to tell pregnant women what they can and cannot eat. (And this extends to the public at large, which has no business wagging their judgmental fingers at pregnant women who eat soft cheese or have the occasional glass of wine. It’s her body.) But that doesn’t mean the government has to promote the consumption of foods that aren’t going to improve the health of the woman or the fetus. Americans – including pregnant women, and women receiving WIC coupons – are already eating white potatoes, buying them with their own money. That’s their right. But it’s not unreasonable for government nutritionists to be encouraging the consumption of more healthful foods.