WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Some 9 million poor women and young children who receive federal food assistance under the U.S. government's so-called WIC program will have greater access to fruits, vegetables and whole grains under an overhaul of the program unveiled on Friday.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture hailed the revamping of its Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children as the first comprehensive revisions to WIC food voucher allowances since 1980.
The list of foods that recipients could pay for with WIC vouchers was long limited to such basics as milk, infant formula, cheese, eggs, cereals, bread and tuna fish.
But many of the changes finalized by the USDA on Friday were instituted on an interim basis in 2007, including the introduction of fresh, frozen or canned fruits and vegetables to the list of WIC-covered foods.
In its final form, the overhaul will boost by 30 percent, or $2 per month, the allowance for each child's fruit and vegetable purchases, and permit fresh produce in lieu of jarred infant food for babies, if their parents prefer.
The update also expands whole grain options available to recipients and allows yogurt as a partial milk substitute, adding to the soy-based beverages and tofu that were previously included.
Moreover, states and local WIC agencies will be given more flexibility in selecting foods to meet the nutritional and cultural needs of their beneficiaries.
The changes were recommended by the Institute of Medicine, a branch of the National Academy of Sciences.
"The updates to the WIC food package make pivotal improvements to the program and better meet the diverse nutritional needs of mothers and their young children," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has already cited recent changes in the WIC program as a contributing factor in the decline of obesity rates among low-income preschool children in many states, the department said.
The latest changes will be rolled out in phases, with some of the first taking effect in 90 days and states given until April 2015 to implement others, USDA spokeswoman Brooke Hardison said.
The revisions coincide with the 40th anniversary of the WIC program, which is designed to help meet the basic nutritional needs of low-income pregnant women, new mothers, infants and children up to age 5.
The $7 billion program provided food assistance to roughly 2 million adult women and nearly 7 million children in 2011, the latest year for which such figures were available. States administer the program though some 1,800 local agencies and 9,000 clinics.
Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Catherine Evans