Food Aid Program for Mothers and Children Will Provide More Fruits and Vegetables

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The Agriculture Department said on Tuesday that low-income women and children eligible for a food aid program would receive more cash for purchases of fruits and vegetables, with less assistance available for milk.

The final rule by the department puts the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, a federally funded program known as WIC, more in line with the government’s current dietary guidelines. It is the first update to the program in a decade and will take effect in two years.

“These improvements to our food packages have the potential to make positive, lifelong impacts on health and well-being,” Cindy Long, the administrator for the Agriculture Department’s Food and Nutrition Service, said in a statement.

About 6.6 million mothers and children participated in WIC in the 2023 fiscal year, with an average monthly cost of $56 per person. To be eligible, a participant’s family income cannot exceed more than 185 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $37,800 for a family of two. The Agriculture Department estimates that about half of those eligible make use of the program.

The new rule makes permanent changes enacted during the pandemic. Participants used to receive a cash voucher that they could redeem for fruits and vegetables: $9 monthly for children and $11 for mothers. But those amounts, after adjusting for inflation, increased under legislation passed during the pandemic to $26 a month for children, $47 for pregnant and postpartum women, and $52 for breastfeeding mothers.

Those updates align with findings from a survey released on Tuesday from the National WIC Association, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of recipients. Of 22,000 participants in WIC, 93 percent said the cash voucher for fruit and vegetables was the top reason they enrolled and more than 90 percent said the value of those vouchers was just right or not enough.

Under the new rule, the program will also reduce the amount of milk it provides to four gallons for fully breastfeeding women, from a monthly maximum of six gallons; to 3.5 gallons for children ages 2 to 4 from four gallons; and to three gallons for toddlers from four gallons. At the same time, participants can now substitute plant-based and lactose-free products for dairy or increase the amount of yogurt.

After the Agriculture Department proposed the rule change in November 2022, the cuts to milk elicited backlash from the dairy industry and members of Congress.

The department, in explaining the change, contended that the previous amounts of milk equated to 128 percent of the daily amount recommended by nutrition guidelines, while the updated amounts equated to 71 to 96 percent of the recommended amount.

The International Dairy Foods Association, a trade group that represents the industry and dairy farmers, expressed disapproval at the final reductions but voiced support for the expansion in substitutions.

Gregg Doud, the group’s president, said in a statement that it was “disturbed by the decision to reduce access to the essential nutrients dairy adds to the diet.”

Georgia Machell, the interim president and chief executive of the National WIC Association, welcomed the overall changes.

The group “applauds U.S.D.A. for adhering to an independent, science-based review process that led to these stronger standards,” she said in a statement.

The new rule also requires breakfast cereals containing 75 percent whole grain — a reduction from the proposed rule’s requirement that it adhere to dietary guidelines’ recommendation of 100 percent whole grain. It also reduced the amount of juice provided.



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