Federal Government Expands Access To Healthy Food For Low-Income Moms And Babies

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A government program that gives federal food assistance to an estimated 9 million women and children is getting revamped for the first time in more than three decades. The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children — more commonly known as WIC — will now provide low-income Americans with more options for culturally specific food, as well as increase funding for some healthy options.

WIC is a nutritional assistance program intended to help women and their babies afford healthy food. It diverges from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamps, because it’s specifically targeted at improving healthy pregnancies and birth outcomes. This year, the program marked its 40th anniversary.

And to coincide with that milestone, the U.S. government is finalizing new rules that update WIC’s fairly limited list of foods that can be purchased under the program. Now, women will be able to use their WIC vouchers to buy a wider range of whole grain options; yogurt products; and fresh, frozen, or canned fruits and vegetables. They’ll also have more leeway to purchase foods that meet their cultural needs. And the amount of money allocated for babies’ fruit and vegetables will be boosted by 30 percent.

“The updates to the WIC food package make pivotal improvements to the program and better meet the diverse nutritional needs of mothers and their young children,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack noted in a statement.

WIC has been in the headlines recently because it’s been partially credited for a dramatic drop in American children’s obesity rate. Last week, researchers reported that obesity has plummeted by 47 percent over the past decade among kids between two and five years old. That’s particularly significant in light of a separate study that recently confirmed that obesity takes root at a young age, before kids reach kindergarten. Some public health researchers believe that WIC’s successful expansion of poor moms’ access to fruits and vegetables directly contributed to the successful downward trend in this area.

Along with other social safety net programs like SNAP and Social Security, WIC has also been proven to help keep low-income people out of poverty.

Nonetheless, the program is often on precarious footing. Its funding was at risk of being suspended during the recent government shutdown, and some states were forced to stop issuing benefits to poor mothers. And as Mother Jones reports, the GOP-controlled House has frequently targeted WIC over the past several years in an effort to cut federal spending. Persistent budget fights on Capitol Hill have left WIC’s funding levels uncertain, forcing some state WIC offices to shorten their hours, lay off staff, and ultimately make it more difficult for women to sign up for benefits.