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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

In Our View: Reclassifying potatoes goes against the grain

The Columbian
Published: April 5, 2024, 6:03am

Many Washingtonians likely know that Idaho is our nation’s potato capital. Our neighbors to the east, after all, like to drive around with license plates reading “FAMOUS POTATOES,” and bags of frozen products in local grocery stores are proudly emblazoned with “Grown in Idaho.”

The odds are, however, that relatively few Washington residents know that our state ranks No. 2 in potato production. Idaho grew 7 million tons of potatoes in 2023, while the yield in Washington was nearly 5 million tons — more than three times that of third-ranked Wisconsin. In 2022, the gate value of Washington potatoes exceeded $800 million.

We don’t boast about our spuds as much as Idahoans. But in case you need proof of our potato pride, Ridgefield High School’s athletic teams are nicknamed the Spudders. Therefore, it is no surprise that arguments at the federal level about the nature of potatoes resonate here. The root of the debate: Are potatoes a vegetable?

The U.S. government sorts food into five categories: Dairy, fruit, grains, protein and vegetables. And word has gotten out that the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee is considering reclassifying potatoes as a grain, rather than a vegetable, when it provides a 2025 update.

This has caught the eyes (potato pun!) of several U.S. lawmakers, including Sen. Maria Cantwell. In a letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack and Xavier Becerra, head of Health and Human Services, the senators wrote: “Since the inception of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it has classified potatoes correctly as a vegetable. There is no debate about the physical characteristics of the potato and its horticultural scientific classification. Unlike grains, white potatoes are strong contributors of potassium, calcium, vitamin C, vitamin B6, and fiber.”

The issue also has drawn the attention of agricultural interest groups. Matt Harris of the Washington State Potato Commission told The (Spokane) Spokesman-Review: “This seems very odd, that you’d want to take a vegetable — everybody knows that a potato is a vegetable — and remove it from one category and put it into another category. … The question then begs: Why are sweet potatoes not classified as a grain? Why are carrots not classified as a grain?”

Examining the art of rhetoric, we will point out that essentially saying, “We’ve always done it this way” or “everybody knows …” is not a compelling argument. But the sudden desire to reclassify potatoes does, indeed, seem odd. It’s likely that few Americans would question the status of the tubers as vegetables; and it’s likely that we will continue eating an average of 120 pounds of potatoes every year (including potato chips, french fries and other processed items).

There are some practical implications to a debate that has become a hot potato (another potato pun!). A different classification could impact whether potatoes are eligible for purchase under The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program (colloquially known as food stamps). It also could impact the status of spuds for school lunches and other government food programs.

That is enough to require a serious look at the nutritional value of potatoes. Such an examination will confirm something that Chris Voigt of the Washington Potato Commission said: “I always said there is no one single food that meets all your nutritional needs. But if you were to pick one, potatoes would be a good one.”

In other words, common sense tells us that potatoes are a vegetable. But eat some green, leafy vegetables once in a while.