Fred Wilkinson, managing editor
Fred Wilkinson, managing editor

Despite ending 2014 with a big win, the humble russet remains the political hot potato of federal nutrition and feeding programs.

The so-called Cromnibus (continuing resolution plus omnibus) spending bill, weighing in at a fat and sassy 1,774 pages, cleared the way for a long-sought potato industry goal.

The legislation, which President Barack Obama signed into law Dec. 16, among many other things gifted potato growers an early Christmas present under its provision adding “white potatoes” — a.k.a. potatoes — as an eligible vegetable to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Women, Infants and Children fruit and vegetable voucher program.

Needy children across the nation may not all have enjoyed a white Christmas, but the policy change will help ensure they can enjoy white potatoes as a part of their diets.

The pro-spud provision was a payoff for years of advocacy by John Keeling, executive vice president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based National Potato Council, who has worked since the fruit and vegetable voucher program rules were published in 2007 to include potatoes in WIC.

WIC aims to help provide for the nutritional needs of 8 million pregnant and breastfeeding mothers and their children under age 5. WIC’s fruit and vegetable vouchers each month provide $8 for children and $10 for women.

For financially struggling families every little bit helps, but no matter how you might try to stretch it, the vouchers don’t provide very much money for produce purchases.

For families looking to maximize their food dollar, potatoes offer one of the strongest value propositions in the produce aisle.

Retail pricing data compiled by Sonoma, Calif.-based U.S. Marketing Services found the per-pound price for russet potatoes in eight major U.S. metropolitan markets averaged 96 cents in early November.

They reported the lowest price — 50 cents per pound — at a Detroit-area retailer, while Detroit overall posted the lowest average per-pound price for russets — 67 cents — in the survey.

According to the Crains Detroit website, WIC serves about 250,000 clients each month in the southeast Michigan region, which presumably would draw heavily from Motor City mothers and their kids.

For Detroit-area households receiving $18 a month in fresh produce vouchers through WIC, potatoes’ competitive pricing would make them an attractive purchase as well as a financially — and nutritionally — sound decision.

Compare that to the russet’s root vegetable competitor, the sweet potato.

In mid-November, U.S. Marketing Services’ survey found sweet potatoes per pound averaged $1.28 nationally and $1.19 in Detroit, where the low price was 99 cents.

So a Detroit-area WIC mom could buy 10 pounds of russets and have $13 left for additional fruit and vegetable purchases, while if she opted to buy the same quantity of sweet potatoes she’d only have $8 remaining.

Potatoes’ price edge becomes even sharper if compared to pricier products such as branded or convenience-packaged items.

For a program like WIC that is intended to help the needy, it makes no sense to exclude potatoes.

The new spending legislation wisely rights that wrong.

So, case closed ... or maybe not.

According to The New York Times, the Institute of Medicine — which holds the position that Americans eat too many potatoes — is expected to update its WIC nutrition guidelines within the next year or so.

A provision in the Cromnibus bill allows the secretary of agriculture to reverse its position on potatoes if the IOM once again decrees that spuds are not needed for a balanced WIC diet.

The Times article says that federal school lunch and WIC programs are up for reauthorization in 2015.

Given IOM’s long-standing spud grudge, the potato industry better maintain its fighting weight.

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