By Christopher Doering
WASHINGTON, Dec 6 (Reuters) - A popular program that provides food assistance to low-income women and their children received its first overhaul in more than 30 years Thursday with the addition of fruits, vegetables and whole grains to the list of grocery items covered by the U.S. government.
The Agriculture Department said the new list reflects the changing nutritional needs of participants in the Women, Infants and Children food program and will help combat obesity. Created in 1972, the WIC program supplements the diet of 8.5 million low-income pregnant women, new mothers and young children annually.
The revised list of foods that can be purchased with WIC vouchers is the result of a review that was first announced in August 2006. It does not change the value of benefits, about $39 a month, to qualified low-income pregnant women, and children up to the age of 5 who are at nutritional risk.
USDA heard from "WIC agencies, from stakeholders and, of course, the participants themselves to revise (WIC) so it does reflect the latest nutrition, science and dietary recommendations for Americans," said Acting Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner. "We believe this rule will do just that."
The revised program provides women and children with less saturated fat and cholesterol and allows more fiber, fruits and vegetables.
Recipients will be allowed to substitute items — such as replacing whole wheat bread with soft corn tortillas, or canned, frozen and dried fruits and vegetables in place of their fresh counterparts — in order to reflect cultural differences and make it easier for people to participate.
The revised WIC program also provides incentives for women to continue breast-feeding by providing less formula to partially breast-fed infants, and giving fruit and vegetable vouchers of $10 to fully breast-feeding women, compared with $8 for all other women.
These changes have "the potential to transform not only the eating habits of WIC mothers, infants and young children, but the eating habits of all Americans," said Douglas Greenaway, executive director with the National WIC Association.
USDA received more than 46,000 comments on the revisions. Most were supportive, USDA said, but criticism came from the dairy, juice and other industries that will be receiving less support.
Key reductions include the amount of eggs WIC recipients can buy with their vouchers, one dozen a month, down from 2 to 2-1/2 dozen. Juice for children ages 1 through 4 years, for example, would be reduced to 128 fluid ounces from 288, and milk would be cut to 16 quarts per month from 24 quarts.
"We have no issues at all with what they are trying to do, trying to include some fruits and vegetables. But we were hoping it wouldn’t be done at the expense of eggs," said Howard Magwire, a spokesman with the United Egg Producers.
The National Milk Producers Federation said reducing milk and cheese support would deprive many WIC participants of key nutrients, such as calcium and potassium.
USDA, which oversees the state-run programs, said states have until Aug. 5, 2009, to implement the changes.
A Washington think tank, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said in late November that up to half a million people could be denied WIC benefits in the coming year because of rising food prices and enrollment that was larger than expected. (Reporting by Christopher Doering; Editing by Walter Bagley)