The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children turns 50 years old this year, and USDA is marking the occasion all year long. The WIC Program was created as a pilot in 1972 and enacted in 1974.

WIC ensures mothers and young children who are low-income and nutritionally at-risk have specialized foods, resources, and referrals to the services they need. It offers supplemental nutritious food, nutrition education, breastfeeding support and immunization screening and referrals, along with referrals to other important health and social services such as housing assistance and connecting participants to pediatricians.

“We celebrate five decades of compassion and care by exploring the purpose, benefits, history, current trends, and collaborative operations through the state agencies and Tribal organizations that have made WIC a cornerstone of public health,” USDA notes.

On September 26, 1972, WIC was formally authorized by an amendment to the Child Nutrition Act of 1966. The legislation (P.L. 92-433, sponsored by Senator Hubert H. Humphrey, D-MN) established WIC as a 2-year pilot program. The success of the pilot led to the formal establishment of WIC with the 1974 opening of the first clinic in Pineville, Kentucky.

In the quarter century since WIC’s formal inception, the number of program participants has expanded dramatically. From an average of 88,000 participants per month in 1974, the program grew to an average of 1.9 million in 1980, 4.5 million in 1990, and peaked at 7.41 million in 1997.

WIC evolved to adapt to changing health needs and expanded its services to become a crucial part of the nation's public health infrastructure. Furthermore, it has become vital to the health and well-being of pregnant, postpartum, and breastfeeding women, infants, and children – its primary participants. Unlike other USDA nutrition programs, WIC participants must be both:

1. Low income, and

2. At nutritional risk

With around half of pregnant and postpartum women, infants, and young children in America eligible for WIC, the program has the potential to provide proven benefits to a large population during life stages that are critically important for healthy growth and development.

Today, nearly 6.7 million women, infants, and children participate in WIC. There are 10,000 clinics, and WIC serves just under half of all infants born in the U.S., with participants in all 50 states, 33 Tribes, D.C., and 5 territories.

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The program is seen as extremely effective. The Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) continues to invest in WIC outreach and modernizing the program by prioritizing outreach, improving the shopping experience, investing in and diversifying the WIC workforce, and modernizing technology and service delivery.

Secretary Vilsack noted just this month: “WIC has a half-century track record of caring for your families. USDA and the Biden-Harris Administration are committed to ensuring that moms, babies, and young children continue to thrive through WIC.”

WIC is clearly a priority for Secretary Vilsack, Deputy Under-Secretary Stacy Dean, and FNS Administrator Cindy Long. The Program also has a strong bipartisan constituency in Congress.

Federal program costs for WIC totaled $7 billion in the fiscal year 2024, but no questions were raised about the cost in 1974 before the Budget Act was passed. Congress dramatically increased WIC funding in the 1978 reauthorization from $250 million to $800 million.

However, OMB recommended a veto to President Carter precisely because it was so popular. OMB thought the veto would demonstrate that the President was serious about budget control. USDA gave a heads-up to Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman George McGovern.

McGovern called Vice President Fritz Mondale, from Minnesota, to say that “Senator Humphrey (who had just passed) would not appreciate a veto of his program.” The VP called back and said President Carter would sign the WIC Reauthorization if McGovern would give his word to reduce the authorization the next year by $50 million. It was a done deal.

WIC is now one of the central components of the nation’s food and nutrition assistance system. It continues to play a vital role in promoting health and nutrition among vulnerable populations.

Marshall Matz is Senior Counsel at OFW Law in Washington, D.C. He was Counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition when WIC was enacted in 1974.