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Keep Nutrition Science in the WIC Program | Commentary

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, opened its first office in 1974 to help combat malnutrition among low-income mothers and children. Forty years later, the program remains an important means of ensuring proper nutrition for over 8 million pregnant and breast-feeding women and children. Participants receive checks or electronic benefit card funds each month to purchase specific nutritional foods to supplement their diets, including fruits and vegetables, whole grains, milk, eggs, beans, breakfast cereals and 100 percent fruit juice. The list is based on science; nutrition experts from organizations such as the Institute of Medicine help the Department of Agriculture determine which foods essential for a healthy pregnancy and child development are typically lacking in the diets of the target population. This science-based process has served our low-income mothers and children well for four decades and should continue to determine what is appropriate for the WIC food packages.

A May 2 letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack from several senators urges the inclusion of a single food — white potatoes — in the WIC food packages. If implemented, this change would mark the first time that Congress, rather than the USDA, legislates a specific food for inclusion in the WIC food packages. While we certainly have no objection to the specific food being singled out — white potatoes — this departure from the well-established, science-based process is unwarranted. It is essential that the USDA continue to determine the content of WIC packages based on scientific recommendations of the IOM.

The WIC program serves a particularly vulnerable population at a particularly critical stage in their development. Since its inception, the program has relied on scientific experts to determine what is included in the food packages participants can buy with program funds. They are limited lists of foods, tailored to each stage of development.

Five years ago, the USDA updated the WIC food packages for the first time since 1980. To help with these revisions, the USDA commissioned the nonpartisan Institute of Medicine to create a scientific committee of experts on maternal and child nutrition. The IOM delivered its recommendations to the USDA in a 2005 report, “WIC Food Packages: Time for a Change.”

To meet the goals of good health, growth and development, the IOM committee first considered which nutrients and foods support a healthy pregnancy and child development. One major basis for the food packages is the federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which are updated every five years by the USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services to include the most recent evidence on what constitutes a healthy diet for those ages 2 and up. A particular challenge for the IOM committee in creating the food packages for infants and toddlers in WIC was the lack of federal Dietary Guidelines for children under age 2. In our 2012 “Lots to Lose” report, the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Nutrition and Physical Activity Initiative recommended developing guidelines for Americans of all ages, and we were pleased to see that the 2014 Farm Bill required the 2020 Dietary Guidelines to do just that.

The IOM’s second major task was to determine which healthy foods are typically lacking in the diets of low-income mothers and children. The IOM report found that low-income children consumed more starchy vegetables than the Dietary Guidelines recommended, and that over 80% of starchy vegetables consumed were white potatoes. It also found that children under-consumed every other type of vegetable. In fact, white potatoes were the most widely consumed vegetable and made up more than 40 percent of young children’s total vegetable intake.

Here is the key issue: WIC provides foods that are both healthy and lacking in the diets of pregnant women and children. Based on the IOM’s findings, white potatoes are not “lacking” in the diets of the target population—quite the opposite—and the decision not to include them on the list of foods covered by WIC vouchers is consistent with the program’s goals. WIC provides only $10 per month to purchase fruits and vegetables for women and $6 per month for children. Every dollar spent on white potatoes is a dollar not spent on other fruits and vegetables, such as leafy greens, that provide a wide array of essential nutrients. And this isn’t to say that white potatoes are unhealthy. They contain several vitamins and minerals and are, of course, still available for purchase by WIC mothers using their personal grocery funds or SNAP benefits.

Three years ago, we made a similar appeal when Congress interfered with a USDA proposal to limit starchy vegetables such as white potatoes in the National School Lunch Program. Today, we have the same response: These important decisions should be science-based. Given our nation’s costly and debilitating epidemic of nutrition-related chronic diseases such as obesity and diabetes, we must seize every opportunity to promote sound nutrition. As former elected and appointed officials, we recognize that members of Congress want to protect the economic interests of their constituents. But it is equally important to protect their constituents’ health interests. They can do so by ensuring that WIC food packages continue to be based on the latest science. When the Senate Appropriations Committee reviews the 2015 USDA budget, we urge its members to respect the Institute of Medicine’s recommendations for the foods to be included in the WIC program. To do otherwise would undermine the science-based process.

Dan Glickman served as secretary of Agriculture from 1995 until 2001 and as chairman and CEO of the Motion Picture Association from 2004-2010. He currently serves as a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center. Ann M. Veneman served as secretary of Agriculture from 2001 until 2005 and executive director of UNICEF from 2005 to 2010. They are co-chairs of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Nutrition and Physical Activity Initiative.