Women and children are now eating more healthy fruits, vegetables and whole-grains, according to a new brief from The Food and Research Action Center (FRAC). The brief analyzes multiple studies on the effects of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program’s updated food packaging guidelines.
WIC is a federal program that provides children and low-income pregnant or postpartum women with food, nutrition education and medical care. As of 2013, the program serves 8.6 million women and children per month.
In 2007, the WIC program was revised to align with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans and guidelines on infant feeding from the American Academy of Pediatrics. This was the first update to the guidelines since 1980.
Among other things, the update brought several items that are staples of the WIC program into alignment with current nutrition standards: milk, cheese, eggs, fruit juice and some infant formula. The amount of each of these items in a package was changed. Additionally, low-fat and nonfat milk is now available, as well as more fruits, vegetables and whole-grains.
FRAC’s new brief analyzes research from multiple sources about the effects of these changes on the people WIC serves. According to the study’s lead author, PreventObesity.net Leader Heather Hartline-Grafton, a Doctor of Public Health and Registered Dietician who serves as senior nutrition policy and research analyst for FRAC, the research shows that, “The revised WIC food packages have, in a relatively short amount of time, demonstrated positive nutrition and health impacts.”
According to one study that looked at records of 3.5 million children in the New York state WIC program, young children are now eating more fruits, vegetables and whole-grains. The same study also found a modest decline in the overweight and obesity rates among this group.
New York is not the only state seeing changes, either. In California, according to a study of almost 3,000 caregivers and children, consumption of fruit, vegetables, whole-grains and lower-fat milk also increased.
The amount of fruit, vegetables and whole-grains consumed also increased among more than 1,600 Native American children ages 2 to 4.
In addition, Hartline-Grafton notes that, “The new WIC food packages were linked to improved availability, variety, quality and/or affordably of healthy foods in WIC-authorized stores and non-WIC stores. Meaning, the revisions to the packages have had an impact beyond WIC participants.”
In Hartford, Connecticut, WIC-certified stores are now offering more fresh fruit, lower-fat milk and whole-grain products. In New Orleans, there is now a higher availability of whole wheat bread, brown rice and fresh fruit. In Illinois, the availability of fresh, frozen and canned fruits and vegetables has risen.
Additionally, the costs of some of these items, including canned and frozen vegetables have fallen in some places. In seven Illinois counties, prices for canned and frozen vegetables fell overall in more than 300 stores.
Taken together, the results of the analyzed studies show that the new guidelines are having a good impact on WIC participants, both in the availability and consumption of healthier foods and in the overall health of women and children.
However, Hartline-Grafton says, “The studies included in our report looked at relatively short-term impacts because the food packages haven’t been in place for very long. We need research examining the long-term impacts of the revised packages on dietary and health outcomes for mothers, infants, and children.”
“These findings are very promising and demonstrate the important role of WIC in improving the health and well-being of vulnerable mothers and children. We need to continue monitoring the program’s impacts on participation and outcomes so we can best meet the needs of the population it serves,” she concludes.