The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) is one of the premier public health programs in the United States. For more than 40 years, this program has provided supplemental foods, nutrition education, and referrals to health care for low-income pregnant, breastfeeding, and postpartum women, infants, and children up to age 5.
Through the WIC Program, nutrition experts prescribe healthy foods to participants, provide support for breastfeeding, and ensure that moms and children receive important nutritional information for healthy pregnancies, infant feeding, and child dietary needs.
There are two other components of the program that also contribute to WIC being a “great” program.
One is the science and evidence base used to select foods for the program. The foods selected for this program not only are healthy but reflect our best scientific knowledge of the nutrients missing from the diets of low-income women and children and the foods that best provide these nutrients. While there are many healthy foods available for purchase, finding those that can best meet the dietary needs of this specific population, based on nutrients that are missing in their diets, is a challenge. Major changes to the WIC food packages in 2009 reflected the evidence that diets and food consumption patterns have changed since the WIC Program was launched in 1974 and that major changes were needed in the WIC food packages to reflect these changes.
A second component of the program is the caring and support provided by local WIC staff members who provide WIC services. Many government programs are administered and delivered through the collection of information from potential participants and issuance of benefits to those who are eligible, with little interaction beyond what is necessary to complete an enrollment or certification form. In contrast, WIC staff members interact with program participants on a far more intimate basis; they discuss details of the family’s eating habits, help participants deal with obesity issues, support mothers’ breastfeeding goals, and assist parents with recognizing and dealing with the health-related issues of their infants and young children. These dedicated WIC personnel must do all of this within the time limits of a WIC office visit that also involves completing the normal government paperwork and meeting administrative requirements.
Two recent publications have the potential to continue to support and improve these two components of WIC. The first is a recently released report by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) that describes the evidence being considered in the current review of the WIC food packages. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service is required to conduct a periodic review of the WIC food packages and has engaged the IOM to conduct a review. The IOM will be make recommendations for changes that may be needed.
The purpose of the recently released report is to provide details of the evidence that was considered in the first phase of the review and present the framework that will be used for the Committee to make recommendations in the second phase. The report provides a very strong scientific foundation for considering changes to the food packages, reflecting the impact of the 2009 food package changes and the effects on the food and retail grocery industry and the community providers delivering WIC services. The Committee members are to be commended for the breadth of evidence that they considered in the first report and that will be used as they move forward with the second phase of their task: making recommendations for food package changes. The continued effort to keep the WIC Program as an “evidence- and scientifically based” program is critical to making it great.
The second bit of news relates to the bipartisan effort in the U.S. Senate to improve and support WIC through changes being introduced in the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act. Some of the recommended changes will provide for a stronger transition of children from the WIC Program to school nutrition programs as they move into the school environment. The bill will allow states the option to enroll children in WIC until their 6th birthday or until they enter full-day kindergarten. Currently, eligibility for WIC terminates on a child’s 5th birthday. The bill also gives states the option to certify infants for up to 2 years, reducing a barrier to child participation in the program. Additionally, the bill authorizes $25 million/year more for funding to help all states implement electronic benefits transfer (EBT) systems by 2020, making the delivery of WIC benefits more user friendly and efficient.
These efforts, both alone and in combination, will continue to improve and support this already great public health nutrition program. The efforts are well worth our support and praise, and we should take every opportunity to communicate this support to politicians who sometimes forget that it benefits all of us to have healthy mothers and children. These families deserve a program that provides compassionate and appropriate support based on the best evidence available to meet their challenging nutrition needs at a time in their lives at which good nutrition can have the greatest impact.