The US Department of Agriculture has overhauled its Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and its list for WIC now features more fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
The overhaul was the first major one done since 1980. Prior to this new list, only the basics such as milk, infant formula, cheese, eggs, cereals, bread, and tuna fish, were allowed for holders of WIC vouchers. In 2007, the USDA instituted some changes on an interim basis. In 2009 further changes were made, mainly to eliminate certain juice drinks and items with saturated fat. This list has now become final, and will be rolled out in phases. It will be in place completely by April 2015.
In its final form, the WIC boosts the allowance for each child by $2 per month, and will also allow parents to choose fresh produce instead of canned or jarred infant food. The updated list, implementing changes recommended by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, also allows yogurt as a partial milk substitute, in addition to soy-based beverages and tofu, which were in the previous list. The revamped program will also allow states and local WIC agencies more flexibility in selecting the foods that their beneficiaries need, according to their nutritional and cultural requirements.
This major overhaul in the food included in the program takes into account the diverse nutritional needs of women and children. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has already credited the new changes in the WIC program as part of the cause of the decreasing rates of obesity in low-income pre-school children.
"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," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
Potato farmers, though, are quite disappointed that the new list does not include their produce. Despite its claim to offer more healthy choices for WIC beneficiaries, the new WIC list kept the potassium-rich, cholesterol-free, fat-free, and sodium-free potato off the list. Potatoes were left off the list in 2009, a decision which was based on the recommendation of a scientific panel, which felt that Americans were already consuming more potatoes compared to other vegetables.
This decision elicited strong responses from the National Potato Council, the industry's leading lobbying and trade organization on Capitol Hill. The Council said that the USDA is violating its own dietary guidelines, since it is the USDA that urges women and children to eat more starchy vegetables.
Members of Maine's congressional delegation also deplored that the new list does not include potatoes.
"USDA's decision ought to be driven by nutritional facts and food science. In that kind of review, the fresh, white potato wins, hands down. The potato has more potassium than bananas, a food commonly associated with this nutrient which is important for pregnant women and new mothers," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who, with other lawmakers in 2011, successfully fought a USDA proposal that would limit the amount of starchy foods being served in school cafeterias.
Many other groups are fighting for potatoes to be kept on the list, arguing that fresh potatoes are an affordable way for low-income families to get the nutrition they need, and these vitamins and minerals can be easily gotten from starchy foods made from potatoes.
About 2 million adult women and almost 7 million young children were covered by the $7 billion WIC program in 2011 alone. They received regular federal assistance with their food purchases, and there are about 1,800 local agencies and 9,000 over the country that administer the program.
Incidentally, these revisions coincide with the WIC's 40th anniversary. The WIC has been set up as a federal program that subsidizes food purchases of low-income pregnant women, new mothers, infants, and children up to age 5.