First Lady Michelle Obama clashes with Sen. Collins over fresh, white potato


Susan MichelleTwo of Washington, D.C.’s most powerful women – First Lady Michelle Obama and Maine Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican – are butting heads this week over the unlikeliest of things: the fresh white potato.

At issue is whether public assistance programs, particularly the Women and Infant Child (WIC) voucher program, should subsidize the potato.

Michelle Obama, who has made telling other people what they should eat the hallmark of her tenure in the White House, objects to the potato. She wrote in a New York Times op-ed published Thursday (and splashed across the Drudge Report):

Right now, the House of Representatives is considering a bill to override science by mandating that white potatoes be included on the list of foods that women can purchase using WIC dollars. 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.

about_potatoAlthough Obama says the threat of the potato has been raised by the GOP-controlled House of Representatives, it actually started with Collins, who has been fighting to include the potato in major assistance programs since at least June of 2013.

Last week, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved Collins’ request to include Maine’s fresh white potato in the WIC program.

Collins co-authored an op-ed in the Bangor Daily News, along with Sen. Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat, in which she argues that scientific evidence supports the nutritional value of the potato.

The fact is, potatoes have more potassium than bananas. They are cholesterol-free, fat-free and sodium-free. A medium baked potato contains 15 percent of the daily recommended value of dietary fiber, 27 percent of the daily recommended value for vitamin B6, and 28 percent of the daily recommended value of vitamin C. We are not encouraging children or pregnant women to eat more french fries or any other fried food. But eating baked potatoes, with their skin, is a good, nutritious choice. Instead of prohibiting the purchase of the fresh potato, USDA should encourage its healthy preparation.

Aside from the overall healthfulness of the potato and its role as a nutrient-dense, affordable vegetable, other glaring inconsistencies in the implementation of this rule remain. For example, potatoes for sale in a supermarket are not available for purchase using WIC fresh fruit and vegetable vouchers. Those same potatoes, however, are eligible for purchase using the vouchers in the WIC Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program. We find it troubling that programs with the same ultimate mission would unnecessarily apply inconsistent scientific standards.

Yes, the potato industry is important to both our states and many more. It provides good jobs for hard-working Americans. But we are not asking for special treatment. We are only asking USDA to play fair and to recognize that excluding potatoes is inconsistent with the department’s own dietary guidelines.

The disagreement over whether the white potato coheres with Obama’s four-year-old Let’sMove! initiative comes as school kids across the country are balking at new lunches. Taking to social media to protest the new dietary guidelines, American high schoolers have used #ThanksMichelle to share pictures of lunches that look, well, less than savory. (See pictures here, here and here.) added a new element to coverage of the food fight this week with an investigation into what the Obamas’ daughters are served for lunch at their elite Washington, D.C., school, Sidwell Friends:

While the Obama daughters have enjoyed dishes like chicken coconut soup, local butternut squash soup, crusted tilapia, they also get their fill of what Mrs. Obama might consider junk food.

This week, for example, they’ll enjoy meatball subs, BBQ wings, and ice cream, in addition to chicken curry, deviled egg salad and the intriguing “Chef’s Choice.”

Sidwell Friends has even been rated the #1 School Lunch program in America.

Although Michelle Obama is clearly the public face of the new food rules, some Capitol Hill reporters have suggested that the man who is really pulling the strings behind the scenes is an Art History major with zero experience in dietary guidelines: Sam Kass, a former White House chef who is heading up the Let’sMove! campaign.

From Politico:

SPEAKING OF FLOTUS, she was also featured as arguably the top “mover and shaker” in food for 2014 during another panel during FDLI’s Food Week, but it was Michelle Obama’s senior policy adviser and executive director of Let’s Move that sparked more commentary. The panel — which included Gail Rodgers, partner at DLA Piper, Tony Pavel, a partner at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius and Beth Johnson, a principal & founder of Food Direction — noted that Sam Kass is really the one pulling the nutrition policy strings at the White House.

“Sam is largely the decision maker,” said Johnson, adding that he works with a team, and the Domestic Policy Council, including Julie Moreno and the Partnership for a Healthier America. But, she said Kass “is kind of the head honcho there.” Pavel said he would like to see more science-based policies from the administration and pointed out that Kass, a trained chef, doesn’t have a “formal nutrition background.”

For Collins, the issue is a matter of settled science.

According to her office, the exclusion of the potato from USDA dietary guidelines is based on an out-dated 2005 report by the National Academies’ Institute for Medicen. The USDA itself released new guidelines in 2010 which, Collins says, shows that the potato should be a staple in American diets due to its high levels of potassium, dietary fiber, calcium and Vitamin D.

For anyone who doubts the nutritional value of the potato, consider this.

About Steve Robinson

Steve Robinson is the former editor of The Maine Wire and currently the executive producer of the Kirk Minihane Show. Follow him on Twitter @BigSteve207.