Let’s Give All Our Children the Healthiest Start Possible
Families need access to affordable, healthy foods so they can nourish their children and create a strong foundation for a bright future. Proposed updates to the WIC food program would improve the health and nutrition of millions.
Every child deserves access to healthy, nutritious food. When we invest in the health and wellbeing of our children, we pave the way for a more equitable world. That principle is not only foundational for child development but also for our collective future.
For decades, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) has provided food and critical resources to millions of families.
For Meg and Jocelyn York, WIC improved their ability to access healthy food and nourish their family. Jocelyn shared her frustration with feeding their daughter healthy food that also tasted good. “I don’t want to keep buying whatever’s cheapest. I don’t want to skimp on fruits and vegetables because everything’s so expensive,” she said. Jocelyn’s acquaintance recommended WIC and said it helped her afford healthy food and worry less about the cost of groceries.
The Yorks had not realized that they were eligible for the program, but after learning about it, they signed up immediately. “Not only did they accommodate our vegan diet, but being on WIC also helped us learn how to be more creative with food and feed Ida really interesting, healthy things on a lower budget,” said Meg.
The federal government recently proposed changes to WIC that would help millions of families like the Yorks.
Proposed Updates Would Align WIC With the Latest Nutrition Guidelines
In the proposed updates, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommended updates to the foods and beverages that can be purchased through WIC, to make them even more nutritious by aligning them with the latest dietary guidelines and nutritional science. The proposed changes include:
Permanently increasing the benefit for fruits and vegetables
WIC participants receive a specific benefit to help them purchase fruits and vegetables. During the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the value of this benefit was raised from about $10 per person per month to $25 per child and roughly $45 per adult per month. Making this increase permanent would more than double the previous benefit amount for children and quadruple it for adults. According to research funded in part by the RWJF national program office Healthy Eating Research, WIC participants report that the increased benefit better meets their household needs and is the most valued part of the WIC food package. The research also finds that the increased benefit facilitated healthier eating habits and allows families to eat more culturally appropriate diets, particularly for those on plant-based diets, like the Yorks.
Providing participants with more infant formula
The new food package would provide more formula (up to 364 fl. oz.) for partially breastfed infants in the first month of life, with the total amount based on an individual nutrition and breastfeeding assessment. Shortages of infant formula continue months after the nationwide crisis began, and any strategies that increase formula access for families should be encouraged.
Advancing racial equity by adding more culturally relevant foods
It would give participants access to a wider variety of options to suit their diets helps to advance health equity within the program. The proposed changes would expand whole-grain options in the WIC food package to include quinoa, wild rice, millet, triticale, amaranth, kamut, sorghum, wheat berries, tortillas with folic acid-fortified corn masa flour, corn meal (including blue), teff, buckwheat, and whole wheat pita, English muffins, bagels, and naan.
Improving the Lives of Millions of Families
The effect of these changes would reach millions of children and families. They would build on and strengthen a program that already provides direct, evidence-based benefits for those who participate.
WIC is associated with healthier diets for children and parents. Children who have participated in WIC for their first 24 months of life score higher on a measure of diet quality. Children who participate also consume more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, which leads to healthier purchasing habits by the family.
There is also some evidence that WIC contributed to a 2 percent reduction in the child poverty rate in 2019, compared to what the rate would have been without the existence of the program.
All of these benefits can have broader outcomes. The obesity rate among children ages 2 to 4 who participate in WIC declined significantly between 2010 and 2020, from 15.9 percent to 14.4 percent. The decline was statistically significant among all of the racial and ethnic groups studied.
Changes to WIC Helped Families Get Through COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult for families in so many ways. It’s estimated that 45 million people, including 15 million children, may have experienced food insecurity in 2020. WIC participation increased during the pandemic, partly because flexibilities provided by USDA allowed the program to innovate in how it delivers services to meet children’s and families’ needs while keeping them safe.
Meg York remembers well some of the adjustments WIC made during the pandemic, when everything began shutting down. “We hadn’t stocked up or prepared or done anything. And we’re at home with a newborn and a high-needs, high-energy toddler,” she said. She received a call from her local WIC office saying that they would be offering curbside pickup for groceries. “So that was really an amazing accommodation that quite frankly we were struggling with.”
Throughout the pandemic and our nation’s recovery, WIC has been and will continue to be an essential tool for ensuring children have enough nutritious food and the opportunity for a healthy start in life. It is removing barriers that would otherwise prevent some families from giving their children a brighter future.
Meg York recognizes that, noting it “has been remarkable that we have these resources in our community that allow us to be parents in a way that feels good and is meaningful to our family and to our children.”
Learn more about how proposed changes to the WIC food packages will help children grow up healthy, and see RWJF’s suggestions for making the updates as strong as possible.
About the Author
Jamie Bussel, a senior program officer, has extensive experience in developing programs and policies that promote the health of children and families.