The Agriculture Department finalized changes to the Women, Infants and Children nutrition assistance  program Tuesday that could boost fruit and vegetable consumption among participants while trimming milk and dairy they purchase with the benefits. 

The update incorporates the latest science and supports equitable access to nutritious food for the nearly seven million participants of the WIC program, the agency said in a release. 

Notably, the changes permanently increase the fruit and vegetable benefit that Congress first approved in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The new rule increases children’s benefit from $9 to $25 monthly, and from $12 to $44-$49 per month for pregnant and postpartum participants. 

The move also allows foods like quinoa, blue cornmeal and teff, a grain common to Ethiopian diets, to qualify as whole grain options and expands non-dairy options to include substitutes like plant-based yogurts and cheeses. It also requires lactose-free milk to be available in the program. 

“WIC has a half-century track record of caring for young families,” said Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack. “These participant-centered changes will strengthen WIC by ensuring the foods participants receive reflect the latest nutrition science to support healthy eating and the brightest futures.”

Other changes include adding canned fish in more food packages and requiring canned beans to be offered in addition to dried. 

“These updates to WIC will be instrumental in improving nutrition security among some of our nation’s most vulnerable populations,” International Fresh Produce Association CEO Cathy Burns said in a statement. “IFPA members across the supply chain look forward to an implementation of the food package that will allow for continued access to nutritious foods including the full variety of fresh fruits and vegetables available at retail.”

Cathy Burns International Fresh Produce Association CEO Cathy Burns

The final rule includes cuts to the amount of milk and dairy products available to purchase through the program. Industry groups that have pushed the USDA to oppose these changes since they were proposed in 2022 expressed concern with the finalized update on Tuesday. 

“NMPF is disturbed by the decision to reduce access to the essential nutrients dairy adds to the diet,” said Gregg Doud, National Milk Producers Federation president and CEO, in a statement. “This rule works against the WIC Program’s goal of ensuring all Americans have consistent and equitable access to healthy, safe, and affordable foods.”

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Most Americans don’t consume the recommended dairy servings under the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, NMPF and International Dairy Foods Association said in a release. Milk, cheese and yogurt are three of the top five redeemed items in the WIC program, and provide three of the four nutrients of public health concern identified in the dietary guidelines.

The new rule would cut the monthly amount of milk available for purchase by up to three gallons per family, the groups said in a joint statement. 

“At a time of rising food costs, it‘s important to focus on increasing access to a wide variety of healthful, nutrient-dense, and affordable foods, including dairy products,” Doud said. “It’s disappointing that the final rule limits WIC family purchasing power for nutritious dairy foods.”

A survey of WIC participants by IDFA found that 35% said they would need non-WIC funds to cover milk and dairy purchases given the cuts in the rule, IDFA President and CEO Michael Dykes said. An additional 33% said the cuts will make shopping for these products more difficult, and some respondents indicated they may not reenroll in WIC because of the cuts. 

The groups did applaud changes in the final rule that allow the purchase of lactose-free milk and offers flexible options for yogurt and cheese. 

USDA pushed back on some of the dairy industry claims and said it anticipates more dairy products will be purchased through WIC because of projected increases in participation. 

Between 2021 and 2025, USDA expects an additional 600,000 women and children to receive dairy in their food packages each month, an agency spokesperson said in a statement. This translates to a total increase of 130 million quarts of milk issued and a roughly $400 million increase in dairy spending.  

Under the previous option of 4 to 6 gallons of milk, participants only redeemed about 2 to 4 gallons each month, according to the agency. The updated milk amounts therefore reflect the latest nutrition science and the actual amount participants typically redeem. 

The news also received pushback from some members of Congress, including Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., who said the changes would cause “significant” health consequences for WIC participants.