Plan adds fruit, vegetables to WIC


WASHINGTON -- If there is a major theme in the federal government's latest nutrition advice, it is to eat more fruits and vegetables.

But politics and budgetary concerns have prevented the government from taking its own medicine when it comes to a program that is supposed to provide crucial nutrients to poor women and children.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is weighing a proposal to add fruits, vegetables and whole grains to the food packages that are offered in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC for short.

As logical as that might sound, the decision is hardly a given.

The WIC food packages include such items as infant formula, juice, milk, cheese, eggs and peanut butter. But previous attempts to revise the packages have hit a wall, in part because of opposition from powerful food lobbies that wanted to maintain the status quo.

Shirley Watkins, undersecretary of agriculture for food, nutrition and consumer services in the Clinton administration, said her attempts to add fruits and vegetables to the program were quickly quashed.

"There were a lot of companies that didn't want anything done to the food packages, but we had WIC recipients that really wanted change," Watkins said. "We had lobbyists coming in. We knew as we pushed forward, they were pushing in any direction to keep us from moving."

What is different this time is that the USDA sought additional ammunition - a study completed last spring by the quasi-governmental Institute of Medicine - that should make the changes more palatable. The institute recommended that WIC add more fruits and vegetables, and decrease the amount of milk and eggs.

Currently, the WIC food packages offer fresh carrots for pregnant women. The Institute of Medicine proposed giving WIC recipients monthly vouchers - $8 for children, $10 for women - to buy fresh fruits or vegetables.

But because the institute's mandate was to make changes without adding costs, its proposal calls for reducing the amount of milk, juice and eggs.

Under the current program, young children receive WIC vouchers for about 9 ounces of vitamin C-rich juice and 3 cups of milk per day. If the changes are adopted, the children would get 4 ounces of vitamin C-rich juice and 2 cups of milk per day.

Their monthly allowance for eggs would also be reduced from up to 2 1/2 dozen to a dozen.

The USDA is drafting regulations to change the WIC program, which were supposed to be completed months ago. Suanne Buggy, a spokeswoman for the USDA's Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, said the agency was nearing the end of the review process.

Keith Collins, the USDA's chief economist, said lobbyists did not block previous attempts to change the package. Rather, Collins said, the delay was because of internal disagreement on whether the revisions met the needs of WIC participants.

"The issue is not transparent because the statutory goal of the program is to address the deficient nutrients of the WIC population," Collins said in an e-mail. "So what are the target nutrients? How deficient is the population in them? What is the best way to address these deficiencies?"

But Suzanne Murphy, a professor at the Cancer Research Center of Hawaii and chairwoman of the Institute of Medicine WIC study, said current guidelines provide WIC participants with more dairy than federal nutrition guidelines recommend. For example, WIC provides pregnant women with coupons to buy 3 1/2 cups of milk per day, while the USDA's Food Guide Pyramid suggests 3 cups.

Dairy industry advocates argue that WIC participants need the nutrients that the dairy servings provide.

"We are opposed to just rubber-stamping the [institute] recommendations," said Chip Kunde, senior vice president at the International Dairy Foods Association, a trade group. "We don't have a problem adding [fruits and vegetables]. They just shouldn't come at the expense of dairy."

Rep. Gil Gutknecht, a Republican from Minnesota, made a similar pitch in an Oct. 24 letter to Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns.

"I do not believe severe cutbacks of dairy availability in the WIC program are justified," Gutknecht said. "I ask that USDA propose a rule which reflects the department's own judgment of appropriate food package components and continues to acknowledge the role dairy plays as a cornerstone of the WIC food package."

Lorelei DiSogra, vice president of nutrition and health for the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, said the delay in setting new policy is making her nervous.

"Many of us are getting a little antsy about this," she said.

Andrew Martin writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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