Friday, January 9, 2009

Changes to WIC Nutrition Standards: Which State is Next?

Even if you have never received WIC assistance, you have most likely heard of the government program if you worked as a cashier in a grocery store. WIC is the name given to the government food program for low-income pregnant women and young mothers called the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children. 

The program was created in 1974. It provides vouchers for foods considered to provide for the nutrition needs of nursing/pregnant women and their baby or infant under age 5.  For example, white bread, whole milk, and cheese are commonly bought WIC items. However, as nutrition science has evolved, those in the field of public health and policy realized that WIC was promoting many foods that were likely contributing to obesity and overweight. 

In 2005 the Institute of Medicine (IOM) and other agencies began writing reports on changes in dietary patterns among women using WIC, as well as changes in what is known to provide adequate nutritional benefits without creating other potential health problems  such as overweight, diabetes, digestive problems, etc. (As an aside, the recommendations of the IOM are in a book called WIC Food Packages that can be found here, but appallingly costs $36.  An 8-page brief report can be found in pdf, here.).

Numerous recommendations were given by the IOM committee including 
  • increasing the vouchers for fresh fruits and vegetables
  • reducing cheese vouchers from 4 lbs/month to 1 lb/month
  • offering only whole grain breads, rice, and cereals to certain food packages
  • allowing the purchase of jarred baby foods
  • restricting the amount of juice that can be bought.
Nearly a full four years later (read January 2009), Delaware and New York have been among the first to adopt new WIC nutrition standards. New York, rather than using the IOM report standards, chose to adopt dietary guidelines set forth by the CDC. Among the changes for WIC recipients are ability to purchase whole grain breads and cereals, canned or dried beans, and jarred baby foods, as well as cash value checks for buying fresh fruits and vegetables. According to a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation announcement, WIC will begin changing its nutrition standards to align more closely with federal dietary recommendations in - RWJF says October 2010, but the Food and Nutrition Service website shows an implementation date of October 2009.

This is a great success for public health; it is a change that will affect millions of lives not just in the short term, but also in terms of long-term health outcomes. It is another example of persistence and hard work paying off. Now the question is -- how will States adopt the new standards? Will there be uniform change? And will there be regular evaluation and updating of nutrition standards, or will these last another 30-40 years?

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