Give the Washington potato its due

The News TribuneJune 2, 2014 

Potatoes, an important Washington crop, are unfairly maligned.


Yesterday, the war on Christmas. Today, the war on spuds?

In the nation’s capital, there’s at least a skirmish being fought over the humble white potato. The battlefield is the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, whose full name is mercifully abbreviated as WIC.

The Obama administration faces an onslaught of potato-state senators who are miffed that the Department of Agriculture apparently holds a low opinion of the tuber.

Agriculture doesn’t want WIC to buy the starchy vegetable for poor mothers and their children. The potato caucus – which includes Washington Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell – is pressuring Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to stop discriminating against the tuber.

You have to be something of a nutritionist to sort this one out. The administration – including Michelle Obama herself – says that low-income moms and their kids are already eating too many potatoes. The other side basically says, “How can you eat too many potatoes?”

The dispute is narrow. It hinges on the eating habits of a subset of women and children.

The larger question – is the potato good, or is it evil? – has long since been settled in the tuber’s favor.

The history of nutritional science is curiously connected to spuds.

France once viewed the potato with hostility, believing it to cause leprosy, syphilis and other afflictions. Then, in the 1700s, a Frenchman wound up in a German prison, where he was fed nothing but potatoes for months. When he emerged, Antoine-Augustin Parmentier was surprised to find himself in perfectly good health.

Parmentier proceeded to pioneer the chemistry of food. He and later scientists found that the potato was full of goodness: protein, vitamin C, B vitamins, potassium and other nutrients. Its skin offers tasty fiber. Some of its maligned starch turned out to have the benefits of fiber.

It is low in calories. It becomes a grease bomb only when drenched with cheese, butter or oil. Skip the curly fries; don’t blame the potato.

The United Nations, it should be noted, declared 2008 to be “The International Year of the Potato.” U.N. nutritionists describe the spud as “the food of the future.” The potato “produces more nutritious food more quickly, on less land and in harsher climates than any other major crop.”

Take that, tater-haters, next time you’re tempted to badmouth one of Washington’s healthiest crops.

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