WIC’s public health success is rooted in science, with healthy foods issued to address key nutrient gaps. In 2009, the first revisions to the WIC food packages in nearly three decades introduced fruits, vegetables, and whole grains – resulting in improved dietary quality and reducing childhood obesity among WIC-enrolled toddlers. The 2009 revision were so effective in expanding WIC’s public health impact that Congress codified the independent scientific review process, requiring that the WIC food packages be reviewed every decade to assure alignment with nutrition science.
In 2017, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) issued a final report that detailed several recommendations to improve the WIC food packages. The 2017 NASEM Report’s comprehensive analysis recognized that several core food groups fell short of even half of intake recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs). Although thorough, the 2017 NASEM Report was required to conduct a cost-neutral analysis, constraining the ability to reach the NASEM review’s goal of substantially increasing benefits issuance for key food groups.
In 2021, Congress enhanced benefit levels for fruits and vegetables through the WIC benefit bump. This historic investment in WIC’s nutrition support raises the possibility that USDA review of the food packages could permanently increase the value of the WIC benefit – a transformative step to bolster nutrition security for America’s next generation. USDA has indicated that a food package rulemaking will begin in April 2022.
In June 2021, the National WIC Association issued a report that assessed the impacts of the 2017 NASEM Report, the 2020-2025 DGAs, and the WIC benefit bump. The National WIC Association maintains that a USDA food package review should:
- Permanently increase the value of the WIC benefit. Before the WIC benefit bump, the average WIC benefit was only $36/month – constituting less than 9 percent of an average grocery budget. The WIC benefit bump demonstrates that families will choose healthier options if there are resources available, with immediate shifts in both purchasing and consumption behavior after fruit and vegetable benefits increased in summer 2021. Enhanced value will ensure greater access to nutritious foods, align children’s diets with DGA recommendations, and incentivize ongoing participation for the duration of eligibility.
- Align increased value with science-based recommendations. The 2017 NASEM Report sought to bolster issuance for underconsumed food groups, but even the cost-neutral recommendations to revise benefits issuance could not deliver at least 50 percent of DGA-recommended intake for key food groups, including fruits, vegetables, seafood, poultry/eggs, and whole grains. Any increased value in the WIC benefit should follow the science-based reasoning of the 2017 NASEM Report.
- Improve the shopping experience. The 2017 NASEM Report identified several opportunities to provide greater options to WIC shoppers without infringing on the nutritional integrity of the WIC food package. Proposed substitutions – such as additional fruit and vegetable benefit in lieu of jarred infant foods – will provide greater choice to WIC shoppers while continuing to prioritize key nutrients. Several of these recommendations were implemented as pandemic-era waivers, including additional package and container size options for whole-wheat breads and yogurt.
- Address the diversity of the WIC population. The 2017 NASEM Report encouraged a greater range of options to account for cultural preferences, including new grain options like corn masa flour. The food packages should also account for the diversity of diet patterns, including vegetarians and vegans, food sensitivities and allergies, and religious-based food preferences.