A study conducted by the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in Oakland, California has found that WIC (USDA Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women Infants and Children) improves preschool children’s diets. A change made in that program in 2009 provided more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low fat milk in the food voucher package. Diet quality improved for the 4 million children who are served by this federal program.
Unfortunately, some in Congress want to cut this efficient and effective program. In the past few years, Republicans in Congress have tried to cut WIC funding, despite the fact that the program improves birth weight, decreases infant mortality, and improves food security. In fact, the program has faced an 8% cut in the past five years, and many WIC clinics have been closed across the country.
In addition, states are adding restrictions that are designed to keep infants, women, and children on WIC from purchasing some healthy foods. In Wisconsin, some staples that are no longer allowed on the WIC program include baked beans, frozen vegetables, cheese products, anything in bulk, and anything labeled “organic”.
The study’s lead author, Dr. June Teter, said, “although the findings only showed significant improvement for consumption of greens and beans, the other areas for which WIC has put in important efforts – increase consumption of whole fruits rather than fruit juice, increased whole grains – all show trends in the right direction, and there is opportunity for further study in the future when more years have passed after this landmark change in the WIC package.”
The study was published in the April 7, 2016 issue of the journal Pediatrics. Researchers analyzed the diets of 1,197 children, ages 2 to 4 years, from low income households both before and after the 2009 change. The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey was used to compare diets from 2003 to 2008 with diets in 2011 to 2012. The Health Eating Index, a score with 100 possible points, measures adherence to dietary guidelines.
For children in households using WIC, the score increased from 52.4 to 58.3 after the policy change. The study states, “this represents important evidence of an improvement in the diets for these children in WIC households.”
Tester added, “vegetables are part of a healthful diet, but in general, children don’t eat enough of them.” Interestingly, after the WIC food package was changed in 2009, the Greens and Beans score, which counts dark green vegetables and legumes in the diet, improved for WIC children, but not for those not on WIC.
This study will be used by the Institute of Medicine that is reviewing the status and food needs of the WIC-eligible population. The committee makes recommendations for changing the food packages.
Co-author of the study Patricia Crawford, UC Cooperative Extension nutrition specialist with UC ANR’s Nutrition Policy Institute said, “increasing consumption of nutritious foods such as green leafy vegetables and whole grains in the low-income children served by WIC will help them establish healthier eating patterns for their future.” This study is the first to report on significant improvements in diet quality in young children associated with the WIC package change.