Low-income pregnant, breastfeeding, and postpartum women, infants and children will have greater access to vegetables, fruits, dairy and whole grains under changes announced Friday to the federal WIC food assistance program.
The announcement marks the first comprehensive overhaul of WIC, an arm of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, since 1980. According to the USDA, more than 8.5 million people receive WIC benefits each month.
"The updates to the WIC food package make pivotal improvements to the program and better meet the diverse nutritional needs of mothers and their young children," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a USDA statment. "The foods provided by the WIC program, along with education that focuses on the critical role of breastfeeding and proper nutrition, help to ensure that every American child has the opportunity to grow up healthy and strong."
Along with a more than 30% increase in the dollar amount for children's fruits and vegetables purchases, the changes also expand whole grain options available to participants and provide yogurt as a partial milk substitute for children and women.
In addition, the changes allow parents of older infants to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables instead of jarred infant food if they choose, and give states and local WIC agencies more flexibility to meet the nutritional and cultural needs of WIC participants.
Still excluded, however, are white potatoes. The National Potato Council in a statement Friday said the USDA failed to consider Centers for Disease Control and Prevention consumption data that shows women and children are falling well short of their consumption targets for starchy vegetables.
"Including economical fresh white potatoes would supplement the diets of WIC participants with two of the four 'nutrients of concern' – potassium and dietary fiber," the Council said. "The science clearly justifies including nutritionally rich fresh white potatoes in the WIC basket, and we will continue to urge USDA to reverse its course and restore science to the WIC program."
The revisions reflect public comments submitted in response to changes proposed as interim requirements in December 2007. Those requirements updated regulations governing WIC foods to align them more closely with updated nutrition science and recommendations of the National Academies' Institute of Medicine and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
According to the USDA, recent research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified changes to the WIC food packages as a contributing factor in the decline in obesity rates among low-income preschoolers in many States.
The WIC changes complete several weeks of focus on nutrition from the Food and Drug Administration, the USDA and the White House, a celebration of sorts for the four-year anniversary of the "Let's Move!" imitative championed by First Lady Michelle Obama.