by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: WIC

May 16 2014

One more on saving nutrition standards, this time WIC

This plea comes from the American Public Health Association (APHA):

APHA is partnering with the National WIC Association and other public health organizations to gather signatures on a letter urging Congress to reject any congressional intervention through the appropriations process to determine the composition of the WIC food packages.

The appropriate way to ensure that the WIC food package remains science-based is for USDA to engage the Institute of Medicine to conduct another review of the latest nutrition science, including consumption data.

…The potato industry remains unhappy about the potato’s exclusion from the WIC food packages, particularly in light of the release of the final food package rule. We fully expect members of both the House and Senate to propose amendments to the agriculture appropriations bills in their respective chambers mandating potatoes into the WIC food packages.

This would set a bad precedent that jeopardizes the scientific integrity of the WIC food packages.

Sign our sign-on letter to the House and Senate Appropriations Committees.

Please share the link with  colleagues and friends!

May 6 2014

Hot potato: congress micromanages WIC package

You would think that excluding white potatoes in the WIC package (because evidence shows that WIC participants already eat plenty of white potatoes) would be small potatoes, but not to the Maine potato lobby.

It has induced Congress to intervene on behalf of Maine potatoes.  And, according to Politico it seems to have the votes.

As I’ve said in a couple of earlier posts, this looks to me like Congressional unraveling of nutritional gains for the WIC program.

Rumors say that Republican congressional staff have told WIC officials that Congress intends to go after the program just as it went after SNAP, and that this time WIC “won’t get off easy.”

WIC is demonstrably successful in improving the nutritional status of participating women, infants, and children.

The WIC package—the foods that are eligible to be purchased with WIC vouchers—is based on science-based recommendations of the Institute of Medicine.

Politico quotes Robert Greenstein of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities:

Members of Congress often say they want poverty programs to be more effective…Here, they are taking what’s widely agreed to be one of the most effective programs and making it less effective in order to serve parochial interests…If Congress begins mandating what foods to include and exclude in WIC irrespective of the scientific findings…the floodgates will be open in the years ahead for other legislators to demand inclusion of other products that their states produce and that may generate substantial campaign contributions.

How about writing your congressional representatives and telling them to maintain the integrity of the WIC program.  If your representatives heard from enough constituents about this issue, they might not vote for it.

Even a quick e-mail would help.

Addition: Here’s the letter from senators to USDA Secretary Vilsack.

Mar 5 2014

Oops. WIC rules for yogurt permit loads of added sugar

After my post earlier this week about the USDA’s final rules for the WIC program, I heard from Tracy Fox, who heads a food and nutrition policy consulting firm in Washington, DC.

She wrote: “Did you see the amount of total sugar they are allowing in the yogurt provision?  Up to 40 grams per 8 ounces.”

Oops.  She’s right.

The sugar rules for WIC yogurt

The rules say:

As recommended by the IOM, yogurt must conform to the standard of identity for yogurt as listed in Table 4 of 7 CFR 246.10(e)(12) and may be plain or flavored with ≤ 40 grams of total sugar per 1 cup of yogurt.

The IOM reference is to the Institute of Medicine’s 2005 report, WIC Food Packages: Time for a Change.  On page 221, this report says:

Yogurt (must conform to FDA standard of identity…plain or flavored with ≤ 17 g of total sugars per 100 g yogurt.

Let’s do the math

The standard serving size for yogurt in these rules is 8 ounces, or 226 grams.  At 17 grams of sugar per 100 grams, this allows for 38.4 grams of sugar per 8 ounces.  USDA must have rounded this up to 40.

But plain yogurt is already sweet.  It contains 16 grams of lactose sugar in 8 ounces.

The rules allow for an additional 24 grams of sugar per 8 ounces—6 teaspoons!

But most yogurt comes in 6 ounces containers

In 2003, yogurt makers shrunk the package size to 6 ounces as a cost-saving measure.

A 6-ounce yogurt contains 12 grams of lactose. 

So the rules allow for 18 grams of added sugars in 6 ounces—4.5 teaspoons.

The new Nutrition Facts label may help

  • It requires listing the amount of added sugars.
  • This may discourage government agencies from buying highly sweetened yogurts.
  • It may encourage yogurt makers to cut the sugar.

In the meantime, what to do?

  • Encourage the WIC program to buy plain yogurt.
  • Ask USDA to amend the regulations.
  • Make sure added sugars stays on the FDA’s proposed rules (file comments here)

 

Mar 3 2014

Let’s Move! scores one more: No white potatoes in the WIC package

On Friday afternoon (that slow news moment), Let’s Move! and the USDA announced the release of the long-awaited Final Rules governing foods eligible for purchase by participants in WIC–The Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants, and Children.

These are the first such revisions since 1980.  The rules:

  • Increase the dollar amount for purchases of fruits and vegetables.
  • Expand whole grain options.
  • Allow for yogurt as a partial milk substitute.
  • Allow parents of older infants to buy fresh produce instead of jarred infant food
  • Give states and local WIC agencies more flexibility in meeting the nutritional and cultural needs of WIC participants.

These are good moves but the big news is that the USDA stood up to lobbyists for the potato industry who have pushed the White House and Congress to allow participants to buy white potatoes with their WIC funds.

As I noted in an earlier post, the exclusion of white potatoes follows recommendations of the Institute of Medicine based on observations that WIC mothers already buy plenty of them.

Potato lobbyists got Congress to insert language in the 2014 Agriculture Appropriations bill urging the USDA to allow white potatoes in the package.

The USDA responded by asking the Institute of Medicine to reexamine the WIC food package in time for reauthorization of child nutrition programs in 2015.  This is now underway.

Although WIC is a small program relative to SNAP, it still provides about $7 billion a year for its nearly 9 million participants.

Food companies fight fiercely to ensure that their products are eligible to be purchased with WIC funds.  The potato lobbyists got Congress to intervene in USDA rules on school meals.

They must have thought they could win this one too.

It’s encouraging when public health wins out over industry lobbying.

But this one is small potatoes.  How about a few wins against Big Food?

Jan 27 2014

The fight over white potatoes in WIC

Once again, Congress—under pressure from lobbyists—is micromanaging USDA’s food assistance programs.

This time it’s the WIC program (Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants, and Children).

The lobbying is coming from the National Potato Council, which wants—no surprise—white potatoes to be included the list of foods approved for purchase with WIC benefits (the “WIC Package”).

I love potatoes but they don’t need to be in WIC.

Here’s what this is about.

The WIC Food Package

This is designed to meet the special nutritional needs of at-risk low-income pregnant, breastfeeding, non-breastfeeding postpartum women, infants and children up to five years of age.  Rules published in the Federal Register in 2007 aimed to promote long-term breastfeeding by providing WIC participants with a wider variety of foods including fruits and vegetables and whole grains (see summary here).

Although the rules allow states considerable flexibility, they specifically exclude white potatoes.

The New York State WIC package, for example, allows any variety of fresh vegetables and fruits except white potatoes (sweet potatoes and yams are allowed).

These rules are the result of an Institute of Medicine study released in 2005.  This study found that WIC participants already ate plenty of white potatoes.  The report said it would be better for WIC to encourage consumption of a wider variety of vegetables.

Potato industry lobbying

For the last five years, the potato industry has been lobbying to include white potatoes in the WIC package.

Potato lobbyists are active these days.

For example, the Maine potato lobby succeeded in getting Congress to tell the USDA that it could not set any limits on the number of times per week that white potatoes could be served in school lunches.  That ploy worked and this one may work too.

The National Potato Council lobbyists induced Congress to add a clause to the 2014 omnibus appropriations bill.  When President Obama signed that bill on January 17, he directed the USDA to allow all varieties of fresh, whole, or cut vegetables to be included.  Translation: white potatoes, and French fries at that.

If the USDA fails to comply, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack must submit a report to Congress explaining why not.

The National Potato Council makes this statement: “This action sends a clear message to USDA that it is obligated to base its nutritional policy on the latest nutritional science, which calls for an increase in starchy vegetable consumption for all Americans, including WIC mothers and children.”

It does?  I’m not aware of such science.

The Institute of Medicine is currently reviewing the WIC package and I seriously doubt that it will find a deficiency of starchy vegetables in American diets.

This is about getting potato growers a chunk of taxpayer money spent for the WIC program.

Why should anyone care?

If Congress caves in on white potatoes, it will open a Pandora’s box of pressures from lobbyists representing every food product currently excluded from the WIC package.

If lobbyists for white potatoes succeed, can those for “fruit”-flavored cereals and sports drinks be far behind?

The WIC program has always focused on encouraging recipients to consume foods that will best promote their own health and that of their children.

It would be better for WIC recipients—and a lot better for American democracy—if the potato industry stopped manipulating Congress and interfering with USDA nutrition programs.

Sep 16 2010

Baby food politics: Should WIC pay more for “Functional” foods?

Laurie True, who directs California’s WIC Association ( WIC is the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children), writes in The Hill about the latest efforts of infant formula company lobbyists to extract more money for their products.

WIC, for the uninitiated, provides formula and foods to low-income mothers of small children.    But unlike Food Stamps, it is not an entitlement.  Eligible families cannot enroll in WIC if the program does not have enough money to pay for the food.

Despite ample research demonstrating the effectiveness of this program in improving the nutritional status of participants, only about half of eligible mothers and children are able to enroll.

Any increase in the cost of infant formula means that even fewer eligible mothers will be able to participate.

At issue is a provision of the Childhood Nutrition Reauthorization Act thrown out when the Senate passed the bill last August.

The dropped provision called for USDA, which manages WIC, to make a scientific decision about whether WIC should offer foods that contain new “functional ingredients” like omega-3s, antioxidants, and probiotics.  These are increasingly being added to infant formula, baby food, and other foods that WIC buys.  They cost more.  But do the ingredients really make kids healthier?

To say the least, the science is highly conflicted and most studies show little evidence of demonstrable benefit.

WIC buys 60% of U.S. infant formula, so formula makers are eager to jack up the price.  USDA’s studies say that functional ingredients cost WIC upwards $90 million annually.  Formula makers are spending a fortune to make sure that these ingredients get no scientific scrutiny.

Call this baby food politics, but it matters.

Aug 5 2010

John Dewey on school farms. Reauthorize child nutrition!

Thanks to Daniel Bowman Simon who knows that I love old materials on American food politics.  He just sent me this 1917 World War I pamphlet—written by the distinguished educator, John Dewey—urging schools to teach kids how to farm.  Dewey was thinking of the war effort, of course, but also for kids’ health and character development.

What, then, is the duty of the school? In the fight for food, and it will be a fight, school children can  help…With some intelligent direction, these school children and older boys and girls and men and women might easily produce on the available land an average of $75 each in vegetables and fruits for their own tables or for sale in their immediate neighborhood; fresh and crisp through all the growing months and wholesomely canned and preserved for use in winter.

This would add $750,000,000 to the best form of food supply of the country without cost of transportation or storage and without profits of middlemen…In addition to the economic profits, there would be for the children health and strength, removal from temptation to vice, and education of the best type; and for older persons, rest and recreation in the open air and the joy of watching things grow.

What a good idea.

Dewey’s ideas remind me of the child nutrition reauthorization bills now languishing in Congress.    The bills fund school meals, WIC, and other programs in this country’s safety net for kids from poor families.  The bills have plenty of support from anti-hunger, health, and nutrition advocacy groups.  They even have bipartisan support says Senator Richard Lugar (Rep-Indiana).  The First Lady has called on Congress to pass them without delay.

What’s holding them up?  The same thing that is holding up the food safety bill: a dysfunctional Congress.

One can dream that the bills will help schools promote gardening along with everything else they are supposed to do.  But it sure seems like the time to push Congress to get busy and start doing its job.  Now!

Addition: The Senate passed the bill this afternoon!

Jun 9 2010

Functional ingredients in infant formula: Are these about health or marketing?

If you don’t have a small baby, or your baby is breastfed(and see note at end) you no doubt are missing the furor over “functional” ingredients that companies have been adding to infant formulas.

DHA (an omega-3 fatty acid) came first.  As I discuss in my book, What to Eat, infant formula companies could not wait to add it.  They knew they could market it on the basis of preliminary evidence associating DHA with visual and cognitive benefits in young infants.    Although evidence for long term benefits is scanty, the companies also knew that they could charge higher prices formulas containing DHA.

The FDA approved the use of DHA in infant formulas on the grounds that it is safe, but did not require the companies to establish that DHA makes any difference to infant health after the first year.  Because of its marketing advantage, virtually all infant formulas now contain DHA.  Surprise!  They also cost more.

Companies now want to add other ingredients, such as prebiotics, probiotics, lutein, lycopene, and betacarotene, which also can be marketed as healthier and at higher prices.

In response, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), has issued a report on the lack of evidence for the benefits of functional ingredients and the substantial harm they will cause to the economic viability of the WIC program, the USDA’s assistance program for low-income mothers and children.

WIC buys about half the infant formula sold in the United States each year.  WIC is not an entitlement program, meaning that the number of participants is limited by available funding (a GAO report explains how this works).

The CBPP report says:

As pressure mounts to limit federal discretionary spending, it is critical to ensure that WIC not spend funds on foods with functional ingredients that do not deliver clinically significant benefits. WIC spent approximately $850 million on infant formula last year, and a recent USDA study found that more than ten percent of that spending ($91 million annually) is attributable to higher-priced formulas with functional ingredients.  Under current law, the additional cost to WIC of providing foods with these ingredients is likely to grow substantially as such foods proliferate.

As the report explains, formula companies do not have to demonstrate that the added–and more expensive–ingredients do any good:

There is no mechanism within the national WIC program that requires USDA to review the research evidence on the claimed benefits of these functional ingredients or to base decisions about whether to offer foods containing such ingredients on their benefits and the specific needs of WIC participants. Currently, instead, infant formula manufacturers themselves decide whether WIC offers infant formulas with new functional ingredients, while state WIC programs decide whether WIC should offer other foods with such ingredients.

As I keep saying, functional foods (and ingredients) are about marketing, not health.  If companies are going to add functional ingredients–and charge higher prices–they need to have some convincing scientific evidence to back up their claims.

Postscript: Laurie True of the California WIC program writes:

Congressman George Miller, Chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, is writing the bill that reauthorizes the WIC Program this week. He should include a provision requiring independent scientific review of the efficacy of these “functional ingredients” before USDA allows them in WIC foods and infant formula.

Note:  Lori Dorfman sends a Berkeley Media Studies Group issue paper on how to advocate for hospitals and workplaces to make it easier for moms to breastfeed.

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