White potatoes are an arm’s length away from long-sought inclusion in the Women, Infants and Children voucher program for fruits and vegetables.

Aiming to reverse U.S. Department of Agriculture rules in place since the debut of the vouchers in 2009, the House Appropriations Committee approved an amendment to the fiscal year 2013 agriculture appropriations bill that allows potatoes to be purchased as part of the WIC nutrition program.

Women in the program receive $10 vouchers each month for fruits and vegetables, while children one to four years old receive $6 vouchers.

In 2010, 9.17 million participated in WIC.

According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, the vouchers in 2009 were worth about $292 million in farm revenue for fruit and vegetable producers and about $600 million in retail sales.

House Appropriations Committee member Rep.. Michael Simpson, R-Idaho, offered the potato amendment.

The potato industry has been working for several years for white potatoes — sweet potatoes are already approved — to be included in the voucher system, said John Keeling, executive vice president and chief executive officer of the National Potato Council, Washington, D.C.

“The USDA allowed WIC mothers to use WIC vouchers to purchase white potatoes at farmers markets but they didn’t allow them to purchase the same thing at grocery stores,” Keeling said. “We have just been trying to set that right.”

Keeling said science and the way moms shop support including potatoes as the lowest-cost way to deliver many of the nutrients WIC mothers are deficient in.

The 2013 agriculture appropriations bill will be considered by the full House and then conference with the Senate version, Keeling said. The Senate legislation does not include the provision for potatoes.

When the House appropriations bill passes, it would then go to conference and be combined with the Senate version. Keeling said the industry will continue to work on making sure the amendment is in the House-Senate conference legislation.

“Frankly, we hoped that USDA would see the error in their ways and fix it now, and that’s what we have really been encouraging them to do,” Keeling said.

The National Potato Council is preparing a letter to send to the USDA with support from more than 50 House members.

‘Tremendous overreach’

Douglas Greenaway, executive director of the National Women, Infants and Children Association, Washington, D.C., said he is disappointed the amendment passed, making it the first time in WIC’s 38-year history that Congress interfered with the program’s approved foods.

Greenaway said according to the amendment, no appropriation bill funds could be used to exclude or restrict eligibility of fresh, whole or cut vegetables, except for those with added sugar, fats or oils, from being in WIC.

“It’s a tremendous overreach on the part of Congress,” he said.

In recommendations on the WIC produce vouchers in 2005, the Institutes of Medicine did not include white potatoes because they are the most widely consumed vegetable and participants already consume recommended amounts of them, Greenaway said.

“What the potato industry fails to recognize and what some in the House fail to recognize is that WIC is a supplemental nutrition program,” he said. “We are not offering a full market basket of foods; our job is to provide supplemental nutrition.”