Michelle Obama vs. Susan Collins: The battle over white potatoes and welfare

Michelle Obama chats food and nutrition Tuesday in Washington, D.C. Reuters photo by Jonathan Ernst.

Michelle Obama chats food and nutrition Tuesday in Washington, D.C. Reuters photo by Jonathan Ernst.

Watch out Susan Collins. Michelle Obama is coming for the Maine potato.

In a New York Times OpEd posted online yesterday, the first lady criticizes the effort by Sen. Collins, R-Maine, to include the white potato as a food product that can be purchased using welfare funds under the Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, program.

The white potato — as opposed to the sweet potato — is the only fresh vegetable not allowed to be purchased with WIC money, which is meant to supplement nutritious food for low-income women with children. Collins proposed an amendment that would change that, and her proposal has received initial approval from budget writers in both the House and Senate. It still faces further votes.

Enter Obama, who writes:

Now, there is nothing wrong with potatoes. The problem is that many women and children already consume enough potatoes and not enough of the nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables they need. That’s why the Institute of Medicine — the nonpartisan, scientific body that advises on the standards for WIC — has said that potatoes should not be part of the WIC program.

Collins, who’s from the top potato-producing county in the state, has long held that spuds are nutrient dense. Here’s a statement from Collins last week:

“USDA’s decision ought to be driven by nutritional facts and food science. In that kind of review, the fresh, white potato wins, hands down,” she wrote. “The potato has more potassium than bananas, a food commonly associated with this nutrient, which is important for pregnant women and new mothers. Potatoes are cholesterol-free, fat-free, and sodium-free, and can be prepared in countless healthy ways.”

It’s an issue of significance for Maine: Our state is the fifth-largest potato producer in the country, according to a 2012 report of the Maine Potato Board (that’s the most recent report I could find). That year, 15.7 million pounds of potatoes were produced here. Cash receipts for potatoes outranked all other agricultural products, beating out milk, aquaculture products and blueberries.

In 2013, prepared potato products were the fourth-largest food export from Maine, trailing only lobster and fresh and prepared salmon.

Consider all that, as well as the fact that USDA estimates WIC participation in Maine averages about 24,000 individuals, and that’s a lot of cash that could go to buy a lot of Maine spuds.

Mario Moretto

About Mario Moretto

Mario Moretto has been a Maine journalist, in print and online publications, since 2009. He joined the Bangor Daily News in 2012, first as a general assignment reporter in his native Hancock County and, now, in the State House. Mario left the BDN in 2015.