The dairy industry is urging USDA not to cut the amount of dairy available for the nearly 6 million mothers, infants and young children who participate in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, best known as WIC.
The International Dairy Foods Association said in comments on USDA's November proposed rule that “the milk and dairy maximum monthly allotment should not be reduced, including the complete elimination of the specific cheese allotment for fully breastfeeding women.”
“The additive nature of USDA’s proposed cuts to dairy means the elimination of several gallons of milk per month for some WIC families," IDFA said. "For example, a pregnant woman with two children under 5 years of age could lose the equivalent of up to 3 gallons of milk per month, depending on the age of the children.”
The comment period closed Tuesday with over 14,600 missives filed with USDA on the dairy issue and other proposed changes to WIC. An estimated 43% of all infants born in the U.S. participate in the program.
USDA has proposed a decrease of up to 6 quarts per month of milk, with the largest reduction affecting pregnant and breastfeeding mothers.
USDA's proposal also includes making permanent a temporary increase for the purchase of fruits and vegetables, expanding whole grain options, providing more non-dairy substitutions and offering canned seafood as a protein option.
According to the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, nearly 90% of Americans don’t meet the recommended servings of dairy products or fruits and vegetables per day.
Jamila Taylor, president and CEO of the National WIC Association, which represents local agencies that administer the program, told Agri-Pulse the group is generally pleased with the proposal.
“There was really some thought put behind thinking through a more nutritionally balanced approach to the recommended combinations for things like milk and other dietary allocations for moms whether they’re breastfeeding or supplementing, which is also important coming out of the infant formula crisis," she said.
Taylor said the fruit and vegetable allowances coming out of the pandemic were incredibly important and the permanent change in the proposed rule is “huge for us.” She added in talking with members and participants, “We know that it’s actually helped families consume more fruits and vegetables because they’ve had this larger allowance.”
The fruit and vegetable part of the proposal would increase the benefit by three to four times previous levels and focuses on whole fruit as well as an increased variety of fruits, vegetables and legumes, and adjusts the quantity of juice to reflect nutrition guidance, USDA noted. The Food Research & Action Center said the benefit increase from $9 to $25 for children and $12 to $44-$49 for pregnant and postpartum participants is a “vital resource.”
To counter the cut in dairy, IDFA produced a video with Brittany Oxley, a WIC participant from Charleston, West Virginia, who also works as a medical assistant helping mothers and children in the WIC program. In the video, Oxley argued against USDA reducing the fluid milk levels. “Most mothers that I work with are actually just in the program for the milk. They rely on this every month,” she said.
Miquela Hanselman, the National Milk Producers Federation's manager of regulatory affairs, said USDA told the dairy industry the changes on fluid dairy were made to keep WIC a “supplemental” program.
In its proposal, USDA cited a 2017 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) that said dairy allocations should be “supplemental” in WIC, but that since WIC participants who use the program buy the amount recommended by the dietary guidelines, the program doesn’t serve as a supplement.
Claudia Larson, NMPF senior director of government relations, said the NASEM study was done under the requirement that changes be budget neutral. However, the USDA proposal doesn’t follow the NASEM recommendations exactly, she said.
She said it makes sense to begin with NASEM as a starting point, but NMPF is advocating that additional science and other approaches be considered when finalizing the rule.
Larson said milk producers share the same goal of USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service to increase access to vital nutrients for all people and increase participation by those who qualify for WIC but don’t take advantage of its benefits. “We think that reducing dairy in the WIC program is going to have the unintended consequence of reducing access both to dairy nutrients, but also to nutrients overall as WIC participation is expected to fall,” she said.
Hanselman added, “If WIC participants aren't going to be getting what they want from participating in WIC, then they probably won't participate at all. Milk, cheese and yogurt are among the top five redeemed foods right now in the WIC program. By reducing that in the package, we are concerned that it just might not be as attractive for people to participate in WIC because they no longer have as much access to those dairy products and the nutrients they offer.”
Both NMPF and IDFA noted in their comments a December 2022 Morning Consult poll commissioned by IDFA that found that 20% of respondents said they would drop out of WIC if the proposed cuts in dairy are implemented.
The poll also found that 76% of WIC participants said they are concerned with the USDA proposal, and one-third said they will need to use non-WIC funds to cover the purchases of milk and dairy. An additional 26% said the reduction will make their shopping for milk and dairy products harder.
NMPF does support some proposed flexibilities in the program, such as requiring the authorization of lactose-free milk, increasing yogurt substitution amounts for milk and allowing reduced-fat yogurts for one-year-olds without restriction. NMPF said lactose-free milk has the same 13 essential nutrients as regular milk, and yogurt and cheese are also low-lactose options.
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Taylor of the National WIC Association said the additional flexibilities are important for those who have allergies or are lactose-intolerant, which is more common among Black participants.
But IDFA said the dairy flexibilities "cannot make up for the overall reduction in dairy products in the WIC food packages.”
IDFA also said “reduced fat (2% milkfat) milk, drinkable yogurt, cottage cheese and additional cheese varieties should all be authorized for inclusion in the WIC food packages, which would also increase redemption levels and consumed nutrients within the overall milk food category. Swapping fluid milk for other dairy products, such as yogurt, is made more difficult by the overall dairy category reduction.”
The Latino Food Industry Association filed comments which stated, “USDA should focus on increasing the number of food options available to make the WIC more enticing to a wider range of cultures.”
Their comments also noted, “restricting WIC' s breakfast cereal criteria to ‘whole grain rich’ limits accessibility to nutritious corn and other non-whole grain products, such as rice and amaranth, which are strongly preferred by minority groups such as the Latino community.” Limiting available cereal options also increases the likelihood that individuals will place a cereal in their cart which isn’t covered by WIC, which could bring uncomfortable checkout line experiences, their comments added.
The proposed changes also would allow canned fish, which USDA said creates more “equitable access to this under-consumed food.” The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 recommends two 8-ounce servings of healthy seafood a week starting at 6 months, according to Bruce Schactler, director of Alaska Seafood Market Institute Global Food Aid Program.
“Almost all people have seafood intakes below recommended amounts, meaning they miss out on seafood’s healthy fats and nutrient-dense, lean protein,” he said in a statement. Schactler said seafood “adds quality, variety and value to the WIC food packages and is responsive to WIC participants’ requests.”
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