Changes to WIC Program Improve Access to Healthy Foods and Beverages Without Increasing Costs

A study published by the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behaviorfound that changes made in 2009 to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (often called the WIC program) prompted North Philadelphia corner stores, convenience stores and bodegas that accept WIC vouchers to start offering healthier foods. The changes involved updating the selection of foods available to beneficiaries, commonly referred to as the WIC package. Prior to implementing the new regulations, the U.S. Department of Agriculture commissioned the Institute of Medicine to recommend ways to make the program healthier without making it more expensive for the government or families.

The study is one of the first to look at access to healthier foods as a result of the 2009 WIC program revisions, which represent the first changes to the WIC food package in 35 years. Although the study focused on stores in a small area of North Philadelphia, the revisions apply to food stores across the United States and could impact the availability of healthier foods for millions of women and children who participate in the program.

Other key findings of this study include:

  • All food stores in the two neighborhoods improved on a tally designed to measure the availability of healthy foods. Stores participating in the WIC program had a healthy food score that increased by 32 percent from 2009 to 2010, and scores for non-WIC stores went up by 27 percent during the same time frame.
  • In 2009, just 50 percent of all food stores in the study area stocked reduced- fat milk, but by 2010 the percentage had jumped to 77 percent. Pediatricians now recommend that children over the age of 2 drink reduced-fat milk because the switch can help decrease caloric intake and reduce the risk of unhealthy weight gain.
  • In 2009, just 33 percent of the stores carried whole-grain bread, but by 2010 that number had jumped to 52 percent. Whole-grain bread offers important nutrients that can help children and adults stay healthy, but small convenience stores often do not stock it.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation funded the study through its Healthy Eating Research program, which supports research on environmental and policy strategies with strong potential to promote healthy eating among children to prevent obesity, especially among lower-income and racial and ethnic populations at highest risk for obesity.