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WIC food vouchers shape up

Big news this week for pregnant women, moms, babies and kids who receive food vouchers from the federal Women, Infants and Children program. For years, nutritionists have complained WIC subsidizes less-healthy foods. For instance, women got vouchers for high-fat dairy products such as cheese and whole milk, but not for skim milk. Fruits and veggies weren't routinely subsidized, nor were whole-grain breads. WIC also took a lot of guff for plying every new mom with baby formula -- did they really support breast feeding or not?

As of Oct. 1, all that has changed. Moms are now receiving vouchers for fruits, vegetables and whole grains; they can buy low-fat dairy products and soy milk via WIC, and they're encouraged to breast feed. Instead of formula, women who breast feed now get extra food for themselves to help them take in the 500 additional calories per day that lactation requires.

Perhaps the best part is that these changes were accomplished without interference by the gargantuan U.S. food lobby. As the NPR program Marketplace recently reported, WIC avoided pressure from lobbyists to skew the new subsidies away from nutrition and towards specific food products by specifying that they would subsidize products that didn't exist. Yes, it sounds completely counterintuitive, but it worked. For instance, by stating that WIC recipients had to buy 16-oz. loaves of whole grain bread (instead of a standard 20-oz. loaf), WIC forced food manufacturers to start baking 16-oz. loaves that met the program's long list of health standards. The market for WIC-subsidized foods is so big (half of U.S. babies are enrolled at birth) that manufacturers promptly fell all over themselves to formulate new foods that fit WIC's healthy rules.

For some background on the process of developing the new WIC rules, see the Food Politics blog by Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University.

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