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Fruits, vegetables added to WIC's grocery list

/ Source: The Associated Press

Fruits, vegetables and whole grains are being added to grocery lists for low-income mothers and children under a federal program that helps feed more than half the babies in the U.S.

The foods will be covered by the Women, Infants and Children program under changes proposed Friday.

WIC now pays about $35 monthly for staples such as juice, eggs, cheese and milk, but the program will pay for less of those products to cover the new foods’ cost.

The revisions follow the advice of the federally chartered Institute of Medicine, which said the WIC program needs to reflect changes in science and society since it was created three decades ago.

The addition of fruits, vegetables and whole grain products also tracks changes last year to the government’s own dietary guidelines.

“The WIC food package has not been revised or updated since 1980,” said Kate Coler, the Agriculture Department deputy undersecretary who oversees the program. “We thought it was a prudent time to have a scientific review of the package.”

The department aims to add the new foods without changing the overall cost.

The shopping list has gone largely unchanged since WIC began in the 1970s. In the meantime, food availability has grown, obesity has become a major public health threat and WIC itself has grown dramatically, reaching 8 million people nationwide.

More fruit, less juice

Knowledge about nutrition has also advanced.

That’s an impetus for updating the list of WIC foods. The government proposes to add fruits and vegetables and cut the amount of juice by half or more.

Anti-hunger advocates are enthusiastic about the changes.

“Overall, we’re really happy about this food package. We think for WIC clients, this is going to make a huge difference,” said Geri Henchy, director of early childhood nutrition at the Food Research and Action Center.

“In low-income neighborhoods, those are really nice kind of luxury treats that a mother could bring home through WIC,” she said.

Juice makers said the juice reductions are much too severe. Allowing more juice would help ensure kids are getting the vitamin C they need and discourage kids from drinking soda or other sweetened drinks, said Jim Callahan, spokesman for Welch’s.

Hunger groups expressed some disappointment over the Agriculture Department’s decision to pay for fewer fruits and vegetables than recommended by the institute.

$6 worth of fruit and veggies for kids

The program would pay for $6 worth of fruits and vegetables for children and $8 for women. These totals are about $2 less than the institute recommended, keeping the program’s cost unchanged from current levels.

Under the WIC program, people receive vouchers or food checks that can be redeemed at stores for infant formula and specific foods worth about $35 a month, depending on who is receiving the food. People can be at or slightly above the federal poverty level, depending on the state. A family of four with income averaging $37,000 would qualify.

Under the proposed changes, the monthly value would increase for women and infants but drop for children ages 1 through 5, which is another sore point with nutrition groups. Children 1 through 5 are the majority of people in the program.

The program also offers nutrition education, health and social service referrals and breastfeeding support.

Proposed changes include:

  • The amount of juice would be cut from up to 9 ounces daily to 4 ounces for children ages 1 through 5.
  • Milk would be cut from up to 3 cups daily to 2 cups for children 1 through 5. New substitutions would allow soy milk and tofu for people who have milk allergies or trouble digesting lactose.
  • Whole grain bread would be added to the list. Substitutions such as corn tortillas and brown rice would be allowed to reflect the cultural diversity of those served by WIC.

WIC encourages mothers to breastfeed their babies by offering more foods, particularly for women whose children aren’t getting formula through the program. Those women currently can get one vegetable, carrots, as well as canned tuna.

The new list would increase the amount of canned fish to 30 ounces and add canned salmon as an option.

WIC pays for canned white, light, dark or blended tuna packed in water or oil.

The expanded food list was outlined Friday in a proposed change to the WIC program. The Agriculture Department will accept comments from the public over the next three months. Final approval is expected next year.