A change several years ago by a Department of Agriculture program geared toward financially challenged families – mostly single women with young children – can be said to have more than paid for itself already by improving children’s eating habits, and their health.
Long known as WIC, for Women, Infants and Children, this program now is formally known as the USDA’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children – long to be WIC to recipients and sponsors.
It was in 2009 that the USDA added more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat milk to the WIC program’s food voucher package – permitting, in other words, more of those foods to be bought at lower-than-retail cost, in supermarkets and participating food markets, enabling a WIC beneficiary’s cost-discounting credit voucher to stretch further than it ever had before.
WIC coupons – now actually presented as credits on a government-issued debit card – enable the beneficiary to receive their discounts without facing the potential embarrassment handing over coupons long did at a food store/stand checkout.
The addition of more proven-healthy foods to the available-items package actually is causing recipients – including parents of the roughly four million children benefiting from this program – to make ‘healthier choices’, resulting in their children being less prone to the obesity that, as recently as a few years ago, was affecting one in five children entering elementary school.
Evidence that this is happening was published on April 7 in the journal Pediatrics, reporting on a study done recently by researchers at the University of California’s Benioff Children’s Hospital in Oakland, UC San Francisco and the UC Agriculture and Natural Resources’ Nutrition Policy Institute.
“Although the findings only showed significant improvement for consumption of greens and beans, the other areas for which WIC has put in important efforts – increased consumption of whole fruits rather than fruit juice, increased whole grains – all show trends in the right direction,” said lead author June Tester, a physician at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland, “and there is opportunity for further study in the future when more years have passed after this landmark change in the WIC package.”
This means, in the short and long term, that those children who are eating healthier are less likely to be obese, less likely to develop Type II diabetes, less likely to develop high blood pressure, or have strokes – or place huge burdens on the health care system throughout their lives. They’re also likely to live longer!
For the UC study, researchers analyzed the diets of 1,197 children, ages 2 to 4 years, from low-income households before and after the 2009 change in the food package. They used the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) to compare a nationally representative sample from 2003 to 2008 with diets in 2011 to 2012.
The researchers calculated the Healthy Eating Index (HEI-2010), which is a score with 100 possible points measuring adherence to dietary guidelines, from two recalls by parents of their children’s diets over the previous 24-hour period. For children in households using WIC, this score increased from 52.4 to 58.3 after the policy change. After adjusting for characteristics in the sample and trends in the comparison group, the researchers showed that there was an increase of 3.7 points that was attributable to the WIC package change. This represents important evidence of an improvement in the diets for these children in WIC households, according to a UC press release on the study.
“Vegetables are part of a healthful diet, but in general, children don’t eat enough of them,” said Dr. Tester, a pediatrician at Benioff Children’s Hospital. . Using the Healthy Eating Index, she and her colleagues calculated the Greens and Beans score, which counts dark green vegetables and includes any legumes, such as beans and peas, that were not already counted as protein foods on a different score.
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