You only need to walk through the aisles of your local grocer to know food inflation is skyrocketing. Millions of American families struggled to put food on their tables before this crisis, and now, disparities in access to healthy foods are becoming even more pervasive and evident.

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children – known as the WIC program – serves as a safeguard for the health of millions of low-income families. WIC provides nutritious foods, information on healthy eating, breastfeeding promotion and support, and health care referrals to 6.4 million women, infants, and children across the country.

WIC program participants – pregnant, postpartum, and breastfeeding parents, infants, and children up to age 5 who are at nutritional risk – receive a monthly benefits package that includes allotted quantities of foods alongside a cash value benefit for the purchase of fruits and vegetables. The package format is built to insulate families from the impacts of rising food prices. Except for fruits and vegetables, everything is by quantity. So no matter how much milk costs, no matter how much breakfast cereal costs, you get the same quarts, the same ounces.

In the summer of 2021, Congress enhanced benefit levels for fruits and vegetables through a temporary WIC benefit bump. After the bump, there were immediate increases in both the purchasing and consumption of fruits and vegetables, which allowed children to have a more diverse and nutritionally dense diet. Initial research on this enhancement shows that when families have more access to healthier options, they are likely to make healthier choices.

This variety of nutritious foods also protects the children’s long-term health. Children who experience obesity are five times as likely to have obesity in adulthood. WIC’s food package is actively working to prevent this narrative. The last food package revision in 2009 introduced fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, resulting in improved dietary quality and reduced childhood obesity among WIC-enrolled toddlers.

In these trying times of inflation and economic uncertainty, it is more important than ever that the WIC food package expands and modernizes. On November 17, 2022, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) released its proposed rule to make significant updates to the WIC food package – the first to be made in more than a decade. These changes will not only bolster the overall value of the WIC benefit but will also strengthen the nutrition standards that guide WIC’s public health success.

Some proposed updates include making the fruit and vegetable bump permanent, expanding package size ranges across food categories, and including more culturally inclusive products. These changes will help families grapple with the 9.9% increase in food costs and will help address the racial disparities in access to healthy foods.

Food insecurity affects families of color nearly three times more than white, non-hispanic families. According to the USDA, 23% of Black children live in households experiencing food insecurity compared to white non-hispanic children. The proposed ruling will intervene as it emphasizes the need for equity and inclusion in supplemental nutrition programs.

The comment period for the USDA food package rule is open now through February 21, 2023. If we want families to afford to feed their children despite ever-increasing costs, the WIC food package revisions must be finalized. Advancements in WIC will fortify nutrition security for America’s next generation and help decrease health disparities.

We must use our voices to insist that the package is updated to increase access to healthy foods for millions of Americans and advance equity while doing it.

Dr. Jamila Taylor is president and CEO of the National WIC Association (NWA) and is a thought leader on maternal, child health and racial equity. She has appeared in USA Today, Ms. Magazine, WBEZ Chicago, ABC News, and The 19th, among others. 

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