When the government blocked the use of food stamps and other nutritional aid for cigarettes and alcohol, most people gave it at least tacit support.  The idea behind food stamps and welfare wasn’t to feed addictions, but to feed people.  Now, however, the government has decided to dictate choices on food, too — beginning with the potato.  Potato farmers have begun protesting a decision by the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service to bar participants in its food-aid programs from buying spuds at the grocery store:

With that in mind, the Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences, recommended that the U.S. Department of Agriculture stop participants of the federal Women, Infants and Children program, known as WIC, from buying potatoes with federal dollars. The institute also called for the USDA-backed school lunch program to limit use of potatoes.

Under an interim rule, the USDA agreed to bar WIC participants from buying potatoes with their federal dollars. Potatoes are the only vegetable not allowed. Next year, the agency will roll out a final rule on the WIC program, which last year served 9.3 million children and pregnant and breast-feeding women considered at risk for malnutrition.

The WIC program is a supplemental food program, and the determination was made that consumption of white potatoes was already adequate, said Christine Stencel, spokeswoman for the Institute of Medicine.

“The recommendation was made to encourage consumption of other fruits and vegetables,” she said.

At the same time, the USDA will act to reduce potatoes in school lunches subsidized through its programs.  Given that the government actually does the preparation of the lunches themselves (in the form of public school cafeterias and district kitchens), that’s less of an intrusion on choice than a strategic decision on menu offerings.  But given that schools or their contractors control the preparation, perhaps it might make more sense to focus on a healthier preparation than omitting a perfectly acceptable source of nutrition altogether.

Potato farmers point out that their crop does have significant nutritional value.  Potatoes, while starchy (as are carrots and other root vegetables), contain high levels of potassium and Vitamin C, both essential elements in a healthy diet.  The problems associated with potatoes are more accurately assigned to the manner in which they are cooked — deep friend or covered in cheese and sour cream. In fact, buying potatoes at the store usually means better preparation than one finds in chain-store restaurants.

Most offensively, the program treats subsidy recipients as if they cannot make their own food choices for themselves.  People may tend to write this off by saying that aid recipients aren’t entitled to the money and that the USDA can set whatever condition it likes on the service, and that’s true.  WIC and food-stamp recipients can buy potatoes with their own cash, too.  But when a large number of Americans start receiving federal subsidies on health insurance — subsidies that will apply to anyone in the health exchanges with an annual salary of $88,000 or less, which is the 62nd percentile for annual household income in the US — what dictates will then be permissible?  Smoking, alcohol, food?  All of these impact health, and health-care costs.

Take the poll — should the USDA bar the use of WIC funds to buy potatoes?


Update: Poll fixed — sorry!