WIC to (Barely) Increase Women's Access to Nutritious Produce

January 17, 2008

Via the New York Times’s “Well” blog, we learned of a new study in the American Journal of Public Health in which low-income women receiving federal funding through the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program were provided with $10 per week in vouchers to buy produce of their choosing at a farmers’ market or grocery story.

The study was intended to assess whether provision of these vouchers would actually increase fruit and vegetable consumption, as a test of proposed changes to the WIC program to cover produce.

The researchers found that access to these vouchers increased women’s weekly consumption of fruits and veggies just over one and a half servings per week for those shopping at grocery stores, and nearly doubled that with an increase of three servings per week for those shopping at farmers’ markets.

I sincerely hope nobody is surprised that giving vouchers for farm stands to low-income women increased their produce intake – it seems obvious that access to these rather expensive items might be the major barrier for these women, rather than the old stereotype of poor people deliberately making poor food choices.

If you’re not familiar with WIC, a program intended to improve the nutrition of pregnant and lactating women and their young children, the long-standing rules are difficult to understand and somewhat bizarre. Under the old rules, the only produce covered was carrots (and some fruit juices), although baby carrots were explicitly excluded.

However, the program’s food packages have been reviewed over the past few years (they haven’t been updated since 1980), and the Institute of Medicine issued a report at the USDA’s request recommending numerous changes.

As a result, changes to the program to be implemented by mid-2009 will provide vouchers for WIC recipients to use for a range of produce. The new rules will not, however, require farmers’ markets to accept these cash-value vouchers – WIC has its own “Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program, although this provides no more than $30 per year per recipient for use at the markets.

It’s great that WIC is adjusting to cover produce. However, if the study above provided $10 per week to women and increased their produce consumption by three servings per week, WIC’s addition of $8 per month in veggie coverage (with a couple of extra bucks for the children and breastfeeding women) is unlikely to make a tremendous impact. WIC is intended to be a supplement, not an entire food budget, but I question whether this small measure will have any effect on the “nutrition risk” WIC is supposed to reduce, or whether it’s simply a politically expedient move.

Note: If you’re interested in reading the 68-page report detailing changes to the WIC program (and there are many), public comments received, and the rationale for accepting or rejecting the Institute of Medicine’s recommendations, it’s online as a PDF.

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