WIC Works

Last Thursday, Children’s HealthWatch hosted a policy briefing on WIC, aka the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women Infants and Children. What a ray of sunshine in the midst of so much gloomy news! Because here’s a cost-effective program that’s been shown to work.

WIC provides coupons for food purchases tailored to the individual nutrition needs of eligible pregnant women and children up to the age of five. Eligibility here means at or below 185% of the federal poverty level, plus a determination of “nutrition risk.” Many conditions qualify as nutrition risks, including being underweight, overweight, anemic or just plain “food insecure,” i.e., not having ongoing access to enough of the right kinds of foods for a healthy life.

WIC also provides various kinds of nutrition education and, very importantly, links to local health services. It helps ensure prenatal care, childhood immunizations and regular checkups. So it’s a linchpin among our safety net programs.

And a cost-saver. According to a report by the Partnership for America’s Economic Success, every $1.00 spent on WIC saves as much as $3.13 in Medicaid costs, plus significant other costs linked to the impacts of food insecurity.

WIC has a 34-year track record of improving the health, growth and development of poor children in their critical early years. And it will soon–in some states already does–offer a much improved food package. Many more choices, including (finally!) fruits and vegetables, whole grain and soy products and other foods that reflect up-to-date research on healthy eating.

WIC is up for reauthorization this year. That’s what occasioned the briefing. Panelists had some recommendations for additional improvements. Most of these would preserve and strengthen the program’s capacity to do what it’s already authorized to do.

But there’s also a need to require some further improvements in the food package–notably an increase in the allotment for fruits and vegetables. USDA doesn’t need authorization to do this. It needs a mandate that will supersede an arbitrary cost-control decision made during the last Administration.

A bigger issue is funding because, like most federal programs, WIC depends on annual appropriations. The Obama administration has proposed a $1 billion per year increase for child nutrition programs, including WIC. This, the budget says, would enable WIC to serve more than 9.8 million mothers and young children. That’s about 1.1 million more than the program served in 2008.

Would the increase be enough to serve the growing number of pregnant women and young children who are at risk of malnutrition due to the depression? Would it enable states to offer a wide variety of healthful, culturally-appropriate food choices, as federal regulations now permit? That’s hard to say.

But what’s clear is that investments in WIC pay off in healthier children and, ultimately, healthier, more productive adults. Among other things, as one briefing panelist said, WIC is “the best obesity prevention program we have.”

What’s also clear is that poor children can’t wait until our economy improves or until we get better control of the projected budget deficit. The first three years of life are the most critical period for brain development. That’s when the neural connections related to hearing, vision and language are made. So we can’t decide to save money now and save at-risk children later.

Something for Congress to bear in mind as it looks for ways to trim spending.

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2 Responses to WIC Works

  1. [...] on the WIC authorization issue would make a lot of sense. As I recently wrote, the federal WIC food package has been significantly expanded. The District is in the process of [...]

  2. [...] Moves To Improve Nutrition for Poor Women and Children WIC (formally, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) is one of [...]

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