Federal support for Maine’s potato industry

By U.S. Sen. Susan Collins

Susan Collins    I grew up in Aroostook County, which some people refer to as the “Potato Capital of America.” One of my first jobs was picking potatoes for a local farmer, Gilman Albair. Mainers are proud of our potato industry, which has been a major contributor to the economy of the County and our state for more than two centuries.

    The fields of the County were full of beautiful blossoms as our communities recently came together, as we have since 1937, to celebrate the potato during the Maine Potato Blossom Festival. It was an honor to recognize Wayne and Gregg Garrison, and their families, as the 2013 Farm Family of the Year. And, from the annual Industry dinner, to mashed potato wrestling, fireworks, the arts and craft show and the spectacular parade-we rejoiced in the commodity that helped put Aroostook on the map.
    Our potato industry has certainly faced many struggles since the first potatoes were planted generations ago. And, we continue to face hurdles that could harm the industry. As your advocate in Washington, however, I continue to work to help ensure this proud family farming heritage continues to thrive.
    Most recently, the Senate Appropriations Committee, on which I serve, approved legislative report language that I wrote recommending that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) include fresh, white potatoes in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women and Infant Children (WIC). Astonishingly, white potatoes are the only fresh fruit and vegetable currently excluded from the WIC food package. This makes no sense at all.
    The WIC food package is designed to provide supplemental foods to meet the special nutritional needs of low-income pregnant, breastfeeding, and non-breastfeeding postpartum women, and infants and children up to five years of age who are at nutritional risk. The committee’s recommendation, approved at my request, would allow only fresh, whole, or cut vegetables, including the potato, to be included in WIC. Vegetables with added sugars, fats, or oils would continue to be prohibited.
    The exclusion of fresh white potatoes sends a false message to WIC participants, and to all Americans, that the USDA believes that potatoes are not healthy. As we all know, the truth is, when prepared properly, the potato is a wonderfully nutritious food that is inexpensive, easy to transport, has a long storage life and can be used in a wide array of recipes. It makes perfect sense to include this healthy vegetable in the WIC package.
    The potatoes’ exclusion from the USDA rule went into effect in December 2009 and is based on recommendations of the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) report, which uses consumption data that is nearly 20 years old. The subsequently published 2010 DGA, however, recommended five to six cups of certain vegetables per week for women with a daily caloric intake of 1,800-2,400 calories— an increase of two to three cups per week from the 2005 DGA. The provision would bring the USDA rule for the WIC food package in line to reflect the most recent DGA.
    I also constantly remind people in Washington of the nutritional facts about the white potato that are often overlooked, such as: potatoes have more potassium than bananas, a food commonly associated with this nutrient; potatoes are cholesterol-free, fat-free, and sodium-free, and can be served in countless healthy ways; and 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.
    In 2011, USDA proposed a rule that would have limited servings of certain vegetables including white potatoes, green peas, lima beans, and corn in the National School Lunch Program and would have banned these vegetables from the National School Breakfast Program altogether. This kind of regulatory overreach by Washington bureaucrats was senseless. With the help of school nutrition experts in our state, farmers, and the Maine Potato Board, we successfully fought this arbitrary limitation.
    I certainly support USDA’s goal to increase the availability of all fruits, vegetables, and whole grains in its federal nutrition programs. That is why I will continue to lead the efforts in Washington on behalf of the potato — armed with the sound nutritional facts and aware of the economic implications for Maine’s potato industry.
    I look forward to a successful and bountiful harvest this year.

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