Food fight: Lawmakers try to put potatoes in assistance program

Lawmakers from potato-producing states are fighting to allow people on food assistance to buy white potatoes.

A new rider to the 2015 funding bill for the Agriculture Department forbids the agency from excluding “any variety of fresh, whole, or cut vegetables, except for vegetables with added sugars, fats, or oils, from being provided as supplemental foods” under the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program. The bill was released Monday.

Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) is a lead sponsor of the language and can be expected to defend it from attacks during a full committee markup of the bill. 

The Agriculture Department excluded white potatoes from its list of approved items in 2009 because it argued they do not contain enough nutritional value and people shouldn't be encouraged to buy them. Lawmakers fighting the exclusion are predominantly from the largest potato-growing areas such as Idaho and Maine.

On Tuesday the Senate is expected to release its version of the Agriculture Department funding bill in time for a subcommittee markup. It remains unclear whether the panel's chairman, Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), will include the same language.

Twenty senators, including several on the spending panel, wrote to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack earlier this month opposing the white potato decision, so the issue is bound to provoke a full-committee amendment if Pryor’s version of the bill does not contain the rider.