COLORADO SPRINGS — The National Potato Council’s successful fight to return potatoes to school menu guidelines was a victory for the industry, but executive vice-president and chief executive officer John Keeling isn’t stopping there.

Keeling, speaking at the U.S. Potato Board’s annual meeting on March 16, said the school menu success opens the door to making potatoes eligible for Women, Infants and Children vouchers. WIC recipients were first able to use vouchers for fresh fruits and vegetables in 2009, but the program did not include “white potatoes” (sweet potatoes are included) based on the Institute of Medicine’s recommendation that ““most Americans do not need encouragement to consume the maximum recommendation of one serving of potatoes per day.”

School menu success gives potatoes another chance at WICAlthough the rule funding WIC is at the Office of Management and Budget for a final review, Keeling said the U.S. Department of Agriculture will still have input before it becomes finalized.

“We are now involved with members of Congress to generate letters and phone calls to try to get the USDA to reverse their decision,” Keeling said. “We think the victory on the (school) meal plan opens the door to go back and revisit the WIC issue in a very positive way.”

Keeling said possible WIC sales wouldn’t be significant, but excluding potatoes sends the wrong message about nutrition.

“This is probably not costing us on the demand side because of potatoes being inexpensive,” Keeling said. “ … but from a public relations point of view, from an education point of view, from telling mothers and children something about the nutritional value of potatoes, having that exclusion is a real problem.”

The WIC exclusion and a number of other issues generating negative coverage of potatoes does affect consumption, he said, even though science supports a nutrition message concerning potassium, fiber and folate.

The U.S. Potato Board has been ramping up its nutrition message, working with a network of research and public relations firms, who spread the message to dieticians that work directly with consumers.

In a March 15 presentation on those promotions, as well as work on retail, foodservice and segments of the supply chain, those third-party firms used a “Mission Impossible” theme to discuss ways to reach consumers.

Kris Caputo-Hurley, in charge of nutrition research, from Fleishman-Hillard, said the board has a new series of handouts that highlight how potatoes fit into discussions about heart health, weight management, diabetes, the glycemic index and the new dietary guidelines. The materials are being sent to all nutrition conferences, said Caputo-Hurley.

For the first time, potato board representatives were at the American Academy of Family Physician’s annual conference, talking about the nutrients in potatoes and serving 2,000 baked potato halves to attendees.

This past fall, the board announced new research that placed potatoes as the single-largest and most-affordable source of potassium among fruits and vegetable, Caputo-Hurley said. That research debuted at the American Dietetic Association’s annual conference, where the board sponsored a lunch featuring potato dishes.