An expansion of the WIC nutrition program aimed at boosting the sale of fruits and vegetables to low-income women and young children is at stake as USDA considers changes to how the program benefits can be used.

USDA is expected to propose an overhaul of the program this spring that could make permanent a sharp, but temporary, increase in the WIC fruit and vegetable allowance that Congress provided last year.

The department also is said to be considering ways to work seafood into the program. Whether that will come at the expense of other foods remains to be seen. Meanwhile, USDA also is being pressed to ease restrictions on container and package sizes for dairy products. 

The Women, Infants and Children program is the largest federal nutrition program after the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and National School Lunch Program. Unlike SNAP, WIC benefits can only be used to purchase a select list of foods, which is tailored to meet the dietary needs of pregnant and nursing mothers as well as infants and young children.

About 45% of all infants born in the United States are eligible for WIC, which currently serves about 1.4 million women and 4.8 million children.

Until last year, WIC recipients were limited to allotments for fruits and vegetables of $9 a month for children and $11 for women. Now, children are getting $24 per month and women are getting $43 a month — $47 if they’re breastfeeding.The allotments were originally raised under the American Rescue Plan, the coronavirus relief bill enacted last March, but that increase was set to lapse at the end of September. Congress subsequently extended the increase through Dec. 31 under a continuing resolution that was passed in September to keep the government funded into fiscal 2022.

The increased WIC allotments were extended again, this time until March 31, though a stopgap spending bill enacted in December. That continuing resolution expires Feb. 18, so the increased WIC allotments will expire March 31 unless Congress acts to extend them through a new CR, or by passing a FY22 spending bill. (Congressional Democrats and Republicans have yet to agree on a top-line number for FY22 spending, even though the fiscal year started Oct. 1.)

Advocates for the WIC program are counting on USDA to make the increase permanent when it rewrites rules for what’s known as the WIC “food package,” the list of foods that beneficiaries are allowed to purchase. There are distinct lists of eligible foods depending on the age of the children or whether the woman is pregnant or breastfeeding.

The big increase in the fruit and vegetable allotment provided by Congress is a “pretty strong indication of where Congress and USDA are signaling they’d like to move the fruit and vegetable numbers to in the food package. We’re very encouraged to see that,” said Brian Dittmeier, senior director of public policy for the National WIC Association, a group that advocates for the program.

The increased allotments have tripled the amount of fruits and vegetables that WIC recipients are buying with their benefits, based on the association's survey of 29 state agencies. They reported that the higher allotment increased WIC purchases of fruits and vegetables from $15 million per month in the first quarter of 2021 to about $48 million a month in the third quarter of the year. About 65 cents of every dollar in WIC fruit and vegetable benefits that recipients are provided are actually spent. 

It’s not entirely clear to what extent WIC recipients are actually consuming more fruits or vegetables overall or to what extent they are substituting their WIC benefits for cash purchases. But there is evidence they are buying types of fruits or vegetables they weren't purchasing earlier. 

One state surveyed by the association reported five times more purchasing of pears and four times as much purchasing of  tropical fruits, root vegetables, citrus and berries and cherries. 

Given "everything that's going on with the supply chain and the food access issues. having that significant increase go back down to $9 and $11 is just not what anyone wants. ... That obviously would be hugely impactful in a negative way to those consumers," said Mollie Van Lieu, vice president of nutrition and health for the International Fresh Produce Association. IFPA is the new name for the United Fresh Produce Association and Produce Marketing Association, whose merger was effective Jan. 1.

The special WIC allocation for fruits and vegetables was started in 2009, and even with those relatively low amounts there was evidence that children who aged out of the program continued at a similar level of fruit and vegetable consumption, Van Lieu said. The increased allowances should have the same impact on consumption, she said. 

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The increased allotments were a key recommendation of a congressionally mandated study by the National Academy of Sciences that was released in 2017. The higher allotment levels Congress is now providing represent 50% of the recommended fruit and vegetable intake for the WIC population, Dittmeier said.

The NAS study committee, which wasn’t allowed to make any recommendations that would increase the overall cost of the program, called for increasing the fruit and vegetable allotment, making fish available to more recipients and reducing the amounts of juice, milk, legumes and peanut butter that could be bought with WIC benefits.

The goal of the recommendations was to get WIC recipients’ diets more in line with federal dietary recommendations. To hold down the program’s cost, the NAS study recommended making seafood eligible for benefits in rotation every three months with legumes and peanut butter. Under current rules, fully breastfeeding women are eligible to use WIC benefits for canned fish.

The National Fisheries Institute, which represents the seafood industry, is now urging USDA to make fish available to all WIC recipients year-round without reducing the amount of beans or peanut butter they can buy with their benefits.

“A quarterly rotation would be cumbersome for participants to track and may, ultimately, become a barrier for participants to use this important benefit,” NFI said in a recent letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

Dittmeier agreed that keeping track of what foods are eligible at a particular time would be hard on WIC recipients as well as stores. “That’s hard on a shopper … and frankly, it’s also hard when you’re a cashier and someone's running their EBT card and it comes up as declined,” he said.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is urging USDA to provide more flexility on package and container sizes of yogurt, cheese and other dairy products. For example, some states don’t allow purchasing of smaller, 5.3-ounce or 6-ounce cups of yogurt, the lawmakers say in a Jan. 27 letter to Vilsack.

Although the 2017 NAS study “clearly contemplates that single-serve containers should be an option, at least 30 states still restrict WIC purchases to one 32-ounce container of yogurt,” the lawmakers wrote.

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