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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, August 5, 2006

Federal food program to add fruits, veggies, grains

By Libby Quaid
Associated Press

LEARN MORE

WIC program: www.fns.usda.gov/wic/

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WASHINGTON Fruits, vegetables and whole grains are being added to grocery lists for low-income mothers and children under a federal program that helps feed more than half the babies in the United States.

The foods will be covered by the Women, Infants and Children program under changes proposed yesterday.

Nationally, WIC now pays about $35 monthly for staples such as juice, eggs, cheese and milk, but the program will pay for less of those products to cover the new foods' cost.

In Hawai'i, the average person getting WIC payments is receiving about $55, according to a state Health Department official.

The revisions follow the advice of the federally chartered Institute of Medicine, which said the WIC program needs to reflect changes in science and society since it was created three decades ago.

The addition of fruits, vegetables and whole grains also tracks changes last year to the government's own dietary guidelines.

"The WIC food package has not been revised or updated since 1980," said Kate Coler, the Agriculture Department deputy undersecretary who oversees the program. "We thought it was a prudent time to have a scientific review of the package."

The department aims to add the new foods without changing the overall cost.

The shopping list has gone largely unchanged since WIC began in the 1970s. In the meantime, food availability has grown, obesity has become a major public health threat and WIC itself has grown dramatically, reaching 8 million people nationwide.

Knowledge about nutrition has also advanced.

That's an impetus for updating the list of WIC foods. The government proposes to cut the amount of juice by half or more.

HEALTHIER FOR HAWAI'I

Linda Chock, the state Health Department's WIC director, said the local nutrition community is excited about the changes.

"The changes will help our low-income families eat healthy foods and help prevent overweight and chronic diseases," Chock said. "Eating fruits and vegetables every day is supposed to lead to healthier lives because you're getting more fiber, more vitamins. ..."

According to the Health Department's Web site, the Hawai'i WIC program served 36,000 participants who received what added up to about $25.5 million worth of food in fiscal year 1999.

Registered dietitian Nicole Angelique Kerr said the proposed change parallels 2005 dietary guidelines and are long overdue.

"We all know we should be eating at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day and the 2005 dietary guidelines suggest up to nine servings a day," Kerr said.

"We all know that eating fruits and vegetables provide critically important nutrients, including potassium, fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, folate and more. So any change that increases fiber and nutrients in one's diet makes common sense."

Kerr said the change is important in Hawai'i, where the cost of fruits and vegetables is pricey.

"Since these are low-income families, many simply cannot afford to buy fruits and vegetables," she said. "These new changes help remove that barrier."

Further, she said, "because we know that the diets of very young children contribute to the risk of obesity later in life, helping WIC recipients learn to choose fruits, vegetables and whole grains in amounts needed may help reduce overweight, obesity, and the risk of other chronic diseases."

'LUXURY TREATS'

Nationally, anti-hunger advocates are also enthusiastic about the changes.

"Overall, we're really happy about this food package. We think for WIC clients, this is going to make a huge difference," said Geri Henchy, director of early childhood nutrition at the Food Research and Action Center.

"In low-income neighborhoods, those are really nice kind of luxury treats that a mother could bring home through WIC," she said.

Juice makers said the juice reductions are much too severe. Allowing more juice would help ensure kids are getting the vitamin C they need and discourage kids from drinking soda or other sweetened drinks, said Jim Callahan, spokesman for Welch's.

Hunger groups expressed some disappointment over the Agriculture Department's decision to pay for less fruits and vegetables than recommended by the institute.

The program would pay for $6 worth of fruits and vegetables for children and $8 for women. These totals are about $2 less than the institute recommended, keeping the program's cost unchanged from current levels.

Under the WIC program, people receive vouchers or food checks that can be redeemed at stores for infant formula and specific foods worth about $35 a month, depending on who is receiving the food. People can be at or slightly above the federal poverty level, depending on the state. A family of four with income averaging $37,000 would qualify.

LOSS FOR CHILDREN

Under the proposed changes, the monthly value would increase for women and infants but drop for children ages 1 through 5, which is another sore point with nutrition groups. Children 1 through 5 are the majority of people in the program.

The program also offers nutrition education, health and social service referrals and breast-feeding support.

Proposed changes include:

  • The amount of juice would be cut from up to 9 ounces daily to 4 ounces for children ages 1 through 5.

  • Milk would be cut from up to 3 cups daily to 2 cups for children 1 through 5. New substitutions would allow soy milk and tofu for people who have milk allergies or trouble digesting lactose.

  • Whole-grain bread would be added to the list. Substitutions such as corn tortillas and brown rice would be allowed to reflect the cultural diversity of those served by WIC.

    WIC encourages mothers to breast-feed their babies by offering more foods, particularly for women whose children aren't getting formula through the program. Those women currently can get one vegetable, carrots, as well as canned tuna.

    The new list would increase the amount of canned fish to 30 ounces and add canned salmon as an option. The president of the U.S. Tuna Foundation, Anne Forristall Luke, applauded the plan.

    "Canned tuna is a convenient, affordable and nutritious food we all grew up on and is unrivaled in its nutritional benefits," she said.

    The expanded food list was outlined yesterday in a proposed change to the WIC program. The Agriculture Department will accept comments from the public over the next three months. Final approval is expected next year.

    Advertiser staff writer Gordon Y.K. Pang contributed to this report.

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