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WIC nutrition program expands to cover fruits, vegetables

The changes in the supplemental food package better reflect the federal government's dietary guidelines. Vouchers also can be used now to buy whole grains, canned beans, baby food and tortillas.

October 01, 2009|Mary MacVean

Beginning today, women and children who receive food vouchers through the federal government's WIC program will be able to use them to buy fresh fruits and vegetables.

"It's a really welcome change," said Gail Harrison, a public health professor at UCLA who was on the national Institute of Medicine panel that recommended the revisions to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children -- the first major change in the program since it began in the 1970s. "The supplemental food package contributes a very substantial share of dietary intake, and so making it healthier is all to the good."

Added Laurie True, executive director of the California WIC Assn.: "We're in seventh heaven. We've been pushing for this for 20 years."

A typical family will get $14 a month for produce alone, True said by phone Wednesday. That breaks down to $6 for children; $8 for pregnant women and mothers of children 5 and younger; and $10 for mothers who are exclusively breast-feeding.

The changes, instituted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the program, better reflect the federal government's dietary guidelines.

WIC predated the guidelines by several years and, because it was established at a time when hunger and anemia were problems, had emphasized consumption of calcium, iron, vitamins A and C, and protein. The revisions reflect today's problems: obesity and attendant diseases such as diabetes.

The changes also will allow recipients -- more than 8 million low-income pregnant women, new mothers and young children -- to use WIC funds for whole grains, canned beans, baby food and tortillas.

Previously, recipients could buy infant formula and cereal, eggs, milk, juice, peanut butter and dried beans. Nursing mothers could buy fresh carrots for their vitamin A content.

The new provisions reduce the allotments for some dairy products and juice.

Congress funds WIC annually, with $6.86 billion in fiscal 2009; the changes don't increase the program's costs.

Pina Hernandez, the outreach manager for the Public Health Foundation Enterprises WIC Program, which provides WIC services to 316,000 people in Los Angeles and Orange counties, said families would continue to receive about $60 a month in vouchers, but the mix of foods would shift.

Families are eager for the change because of the high cost of produce compared with other foods, she said.

Added True: "We have little kids who have never tasted broccoli, have never seen brown rice. . . . The issue is not just ignorance; the issue is cost and access."

All stores -- major supermarkets, corner stores, shops operating exclusively for WIC recipients -- that want to take part in the program will have to stock produce and whole grains, True said. That's 4,700 vendors in California.

A UCLA study, published last year in the American Journal of Public Health, found that "if you add vouchers for fruits and vegetables that they get used and used wisely," Harrison said.

Overall, few Americans are eating enough fruits and vegetables, said a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey released Tuesday.

In the report, the CDC said that 14% of adults and 10% of adolescents were eating the recommended amounts of both fruits and vegetables -- not including French fries -- for their age and size. The recommended amount is two servings of fruit and three servings of vegetables per day.--

mary.macvean@latimes.com

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