Panel puts potatoes back in food aid program

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Score one for spuds. 

The Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday adopted language that would immediately put the white potato back into a major government food assistance program, reversing current law.

The provision is now part of the 2015 spending bill for the Agriculture Department that is heading to a Senate floor vote. 

The House Appropriations Committee this week already approved a similar rider forcing the USDA to reinstate the white potato.

Recipients of aid under the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) supplemental food assistance program have not been able to buy white potatoes using WIC money since 2009.

The Senate language mandates inclusion of fresh potatoes but the rule does not apply to French fries or chips. It also requires the government to review all fruits and vegetables in the WIC program, with the possibility of removing the potato again.

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The amendment was authored by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and hammered out in negotiation with Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), the subcommittee cardinal in charge of the Agriculture budget.

Collins, holding up a bag of potatoes, argued that current law allows some WIC recipients under another program to buy potatoes from a farmers market but not the supermarket.

“How in the world does that make any sense?” she said.

Opponents of the rider said Congress should defer to science rather than playing politics with the diets of pregnant women, mothers and small children. 

“This is the first time Congress is mandating what should be in the WIC program,” Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) argued. He noted that the spending panel in past years discussed mandating salmon and rice but did not act to override government scientists.

Harkin said that few people eat plain potatoes and  that it is more of a delivery vehicle for sour cream, salt, butter and other unhealthy toppings.

The senator tried to offer language gutting the potato amendment but he could not produce a written copy in time for the meeting. He voted against the rider.