The Agriculture Department’s Food and Nutrition Service has proposed a slate of changes to its Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, including making a COVID-19-fueled increase in fruit and vegetable payments a permanent part of the program.

The agency also proposed updating the program — known as WIC — to allow additional grains like quinoa, blue cornmeal and teff to qualify as whole grains and expand the program’s non-dairy options by allowing soy-based yogurts, soy-based cheese and lactose-free milk to be offered. Program coverage of canned fish and beans would also expand under the proposal and women who mostly, but not exclusively, breastfeed would be given additional support.

“These proposals that we’re putting forward today will promote healthier lifestyles and brighter futures for millions of children,” Stacy Dean, deputy secretary for the Food and Nutrition Service, said in a press call Thursday.

The change would make permanent a sharp increase in WIC fruit and vegetable allowance funding provided by Congress last year. Fruit and vegetable allotments before the increase were capped at $9 a month for children and $11 for women, but the agency’s proposal would solidify $25-a-month vouchers for children, $44 vouchers for pregnant and postpartum women and $49 vouchers for breastfeeding women.

Dean said Congress will need to agree to provide the funding to cover these changes through the annual appropriations process, but pointed out that the temporary increases came at the direction of Congress. She said the agency is confident that it is putting forward a package that reflects what Congress asked it to do.

“Since the mid-nineties, Congress has on a bipartisan basis, as has every administration … committed to fully funding WIC,” she said.

The proposed changes also include a reduction in the maximum monthly allowance for juice included in the packages, as well as a reduction in milk and the inclusion of canned fish in food packages for children ages 2 through four, pregnant women and breastfeeding women. It also increases yogurt substitution amounts and removes cheese from the fully breastfeeding food package.

The International Dairy Foods Association and the National Milk Producers Federation both criticized the new rule for the decrease in dairy, saying that 90% of the U.S. population does not consume enough dairy to meet dietary guidelines. Both groups said they would press the agency to not carry out the proposed measure.

“At a time of rising food costs and high food insecurity, we should focus on increasing access to a wide variety of healthful, nutrient-dense, and affordable foods, including both fresh produce and dairy products,” the groups said in a joint statement. "It’s disappointing that the proposed rule would limit WIC family purchasing power for nutritious dairy foods, particularly at a time like this."

The proposal got a positive reaction, however, from nutrition advocacy groups, the produce industry and small grocers. 

Jamila Taylor, President & CEO of the National WIC Association (NWA), said the proposal “underlines what the White House made clear” in its National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health: “WIC will play a critical role in building a healthier future for families. WIC’s targeted nutrition intervention is already proven to reduce healthcare costs, close nutrient intake disparities, and improve health outcomes for low-income families and communities of color.”

The International Fresh Produce Association lauded the proposal. "There is no question that increasing access to fruits and vegetables will promote nutrition and health for the 6.1 million individuals who participate in the WIC program," the group said. "Prior research found that obesity rates were decreasing among 2- to 4-year-olds participating in the program after the food package was updated in 2009 to better align with [the] 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans."

Stephanie Johnson, vice president of government relations at the National Grocers Association, said NGA “is pleased to see the inclusion of a permanent increase for fruit and vegetables, as well as pack size flexibility for certain foods. We appreciate the USDA’s work on this proposed rule and look forward to further analyzing it as we work with our members to provide comments on the needed improvements to the WIC food package.”

The Food Research & Action Center praised the proposal, saying it “will go a long way in making this critical program even healthier, more accessible, and easier to use.”

The proposed food package will build on the national strategy “to modernize WIC by supporting the increased value of WIC’s fruit and vegetable benefit, allowing additional flexibility in food package sizes, increasing accessibility to culturally relevant food options, and fastening alignment with the 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans,” FRAC said.

On Capitol Hill, Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., also referenced the strategy and the hunger and nutrition conference held in September.

“Strengthening the WIC program and reducing disparities within our existing anti-hunger safety net build on the conference’s momentum and directly reflect key objectives within the administration’s new national strategy,” McGovern said. “Together, these changes will make a tangible difference in the lives of low-income mothers, infants, and children in communities where quality food is often too expensive or not available.”

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