by Marion Nestle
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.

  • Heck, NO! One of the things I like about WIC is that it offers access to fairly plain, ordinary healthy foods. This is a vitally important example for our most vulnerable families, who need to learn how to feed themselves appropriately after the WIC subsidy goes away.

    We’ve gotten ourselves into this pickle by making an entire generation of Americans believe that certain types of food (especially expensive, less-accessible ones) have magic healing powers. WIC is the one voice in the wilderness that says you don’t have to have organic Omega-3 fortified probiotics, you can build a healthy diet from ordinary beans, whole grains, canned fish and dairy.

    I fear that the reason some people pass up beans for flamin’ hot cheetos is that they believe the only truly healthy foods are the well-marketed “magic” ones, and if they aren’t going to have “magic,” they may as well have comfort.

  • The money would be better spent improving the rates and public acceptance of breastfeeding..

  • What a load of crap. People need to know that Real Food, taken right from the earth or sea, already has “functional ingredients” like omega-3’s, antioxidants, and probiotics. These foods are often cheaper than the Fake Food offered by the Fake Food people. They are not, however, always covered by WIC.

    I used WIC for a couple of years, back when my kids were little. I could buy peanut butter loaded with sugar and extra hydrogenated fat, cheddar cheese colored orange, white bread, and of course, milk and eggs, from any factory farm in the country. I didn’t know better, then. But I understand being poor enough to not have a choice.

    This was in the 80s. Maybe they’ve gotten better since then. But there’s no way they should fall for this nonsense.

  • Daniel, Ithaca NY

    @ Alexander Rinehart, CCN.

    Second. All in favor?

    I was working at a restaurant near a university and a woman was providing her infant with nature’s perfect food for infants, directly. After these folks left I was approached by a college student who pondered why I allowed it. Apparently it was beyond this guy’s control to look away..He was so appalled that an infant could be hungry

  • Can I just say that I love this article and all you commentors so far!?!

    @Marlene, WIC has changed a lot of their food program. They even have an agreement with a lot of Farmer’s Markets now. WIC also gives higher food allowances to breastfeeding moms (awesome since this saves money in formula costs!). The WIC program, at least here in Michigan, is really trying to change the culture and make it better for everyone.

  • Stacy

    Interesting, considering that as of 2009 at least, most states’ WIC programs did not include organic products on their allowed lists, due to the higher cost.

    I know the debate still rages over whether organic vs conventional food is healthier for consumers, but with a similar debate over “functional foods”, I’ll be curious to see if WIC is consistent in prioritizing lower cost food/formula or if it bows to strong industry pressure.


  • Katherine

    On Wic in Missouri, you can get choose organic fruits and vegs. But nothing else is organic. And yes the foods are better, Whole Wheat breads, juices with no added sugars. I wish it was way more difficult for women to get formula on Wic. Our office is very pro-breastfeeding, but there are still so many women who don’t breastfeed.

  • Anthro

    My experience is that WIC encourages breastfeeding on paper and with some support, but women remain largely under informed and under supported in breastfeeding. Recently, my own doctor (a well-educated woman by any measure) barely managed three weeks of breastfeeding. “Not enough milk” is the usual refrain. In fact, it’s usually an unwillingness to sit still, eat well, drink plenty of water, and get enough rest to allow the body to make milk. Also, you have to feed the child a lot and not use supplemental formula to get the milk going, Feeding on a schedule and using formula to allow you to run around on a zillion errands without sitting down to feed the baby will result in “not enough milk”. This is a problem with the culture of modern life, not a lack of understanding that breatsfeeding is good thing. Women need to not have to return to a job in a matter of weeks to succeed at breastfeeding–yes, there are surely exceptions, and hurrah for those who succeed in spite of little time off, but it is surely not the norm.

  • Thanks to policy changes introduced when WIC updated the foods provided to low-income families, WIC provides much more intensive support and concrete incentives to women who breastfeed.

    And it’s working! For the first time in California WIC history, the rates of exclusive breastfeeding are now higher than the rates of mixed (formula and breastmilk) feeding! Formula marketing that touts the unproven benefits of additives undermines WIC efforts to promote and support breastfeeding.


    (PS: I am not the CA WIC Director! CWA is a non-profit association.)

  • Didi

    I’m a breastfeeding mom who receives WIC benefits in Michigan. The only problem I have with the program is that they offer so much puree baby food (64 jars fruit/veggie & 31 jars meat) and not enough $ (10) for fresh fruits and veggies. My baby hates puree and will only eat what he can feed himself so we’ve done Baby-Led Weaning almost from the get go of feeding.

    I wish they would let me trade all that puree for proper food!

  • Elaine W

    I don’t know if this includes WIC or just what used to be known as “food stamps,” but in Chicago, a number of city-sponsored farmers’ markets in various neighborhoods are now set up to accept payment by LINK cards (that is, food stamps), so people who use that system of payment can buy a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, artisanal cheeses, etc. (assuming they have enough money in their account).

  • Anna

    While it’s great that some farmers markets in some states are accepting whatever vouchers that state has, I feel this is getting a little too much good press. While “available”, use is very limited. We should be doing more to encourage purchases outside of grocery stores. The perceived expense of farmers markets is keeping program participants away.
    In NC, some farmers markets will even double the value of WIC or SNAP vouchers. Still, use has been limited. Some markets even have the portals to swipe benefit cards. I go to the Durham market twice a week and I’ve never seen anybody pay by either of these methods. I can only hope I’ll see it one of these times

  • @anthro I’m not sure if “unwillingness to sit still, eat well. . . ” etc. explains why women may not breastfeed. To really support breastfeeding, as you note at the end of your reply, women need to have more than a few weeks off. This just isn’t an economic reality for many women who get very little or no paid leave. Supporting breastfeeding requires more than education and more than public acceptance. It requires long-term, paid leave for breastfeeding mothers.

  • @anthro, @melissa- in fact, if a woman goes back to work after the 6 week disability leave that passes for maternity leave in this country, she goes back right when a major baby growth spurt hits. I remember breastfeeding literally non stop for hours at a time over the 2-3 days it took for my milk supply to increase to my baby’s needs during the 6 week growth spurt. I have a hard time fathoming how breastfeeding can succeed if you take the mom away from the baby at that critical time, and then drop her into the stress of resuming work. It is insane.

    Personally, I would have liked 3 months off, 3-6 months part time. I couldn’t swing that, so I had 3 months off and 1 month part time. And with that, I’ve been able to exclusively breastfeed two kids. The second baby never had any formula. The first had some at the very start, when we had a hard time establishing the latch. But she never had any after the first week of her life, and went on to nurse for almost two years. The second one is a couple of weeks away from her first taste of cow’s milk. I’ll keep nursing her when we’re together, but taper off the pumping while at work.

    Anyway, my point is that it doesn’t take a year long leave to support breastfeeding. Just long enough to allow the supply to get established before going back to work, and the time and space to pump at work. A longer leave might be nice (although I honestly wouldn’t have wanted a year off either time), but it is not required. I think that people sometimes assume we have to go to the sorts of leaves they have in Canada or Europe, but that is not true. We should go to something more humane than 6 weeks, though.

  • Cathy Richards

    Marion, I kind of get what you’re saying — the “bioactive” ingredients aren’t proven to be effective, so including them is questionable, therefore charging more for them is as well.

    Nonetheless, food companies charge more for all sorts of things that don’t have any proven benefit. So do drug companies. Sometimes government is involved or is a major purchaser.

    The issue here is whether WIC should be the largest purchaser of formula in the United States. That says something about how we value and support the poorest in our communities. Those babies deserve to be breastfed, and actively and effectively supporting breastfeeding is where WIC should be investing its resources.

    If formula is going to cost them more, maybe that will be incentive for them to “put their money where their mouth is”, or rather where the the babies’ mouths are.

    The story here is not the increasing cost of formula. It’s not formula making stupid claims. That’s really really really old news. Really.

    The story is why is WIC the biggest purchaser of formula in the States? Do all their clients have hepatitis or HIV? Are they radioactive from medical tests or treatment? If not, they can probably breastfeed, or at least partially breastfeed.

  • Jaya Radhika

    The point here is the govt should PROVE that the ingredients added to raise the cost of the product are useful through research! That it makes a difference, cause it’s costing tax payers $$$ to pay for them, in addition to paying for what is for many, a lifestyle choice, with potentially more tax payer $$ to be shelled out in the future for poor health. The probiotics, dha, etc were added as GRAS (generally regarded as safe) for competition, then companies stopped making products without additives, forcing WIC to pay $$ for the additives. So do we want to pay for unproven additives? we are right now!

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  • Tabitha

    On the actual subject of the formula and it getting more expensive..i’m just wondering which formula is more expensive? My oldest DD is 7 1/2 and when I bought her formula is was $15 a can…now my youngest is 11 mnths old and I exclusively breastfed her for 9 months..but she is now on formula and it still costs the same. Yes, the packaging has changed and now it touts DHA and Omega 3’s on the front of the can, but the price is the same as it was over 7 years ago when I had my first child.

  • It is now 1:30 AM and I should be asleep, but instead I am trapped reading this blog. (good for my brain/awful for my morning).
    As a single mother I applied for WIC (and just about every assitance program I could when I found out I was pregnant. I was completely appalled by the WIC program. I wish I had the list in front of me now, but, purchasing anything of substance and anything free of chemicals or organic was not allowed. I was only given 15$ per month for fruits and vegetables, but was offered plenty of stamps for products containing ingredients I would never put in my body— especially while pregnant or breast-feeding. The only non dairy option for milk was a non organic soy product (obviously made with GMO soy). The cheese? disgusting. I’m vegan anyway— but even before I was vegan there was no way I would buy such poor quality food. Eggs? Only large white allowed– no brown. The bread was to be the sugar free type of bread… which of course means ‘take out the sugar– add extra chemicals & additives’. And again— NOTHING was allowed to be organic. Why on earth should pregnant woman be putting such low quality, non organic, added chemical foods into their bodies? Unless the mother absolutely CANNOT breastfeed they shouldn’t even be offering formula. But, of course they do, because the same HUGE companies offering crap products to pregnant woman are also making formula that needs to be sold for profit. The whole thing is disgusting. Future generations don’t stand a chance if our government will only supply the lowest of crap to our mothers, babies, and children.

  • anonymomma

    Drea: How fortunate for you to be able to turn away food because you aren’t in THAT bad a situation that you have no choice. The next time you have a bad day or otherwise want to complain about life being anything other than something meant to be enjoyed, you should absolutely remind yourself that you can sit there typing on your nice computer in your climate controlled environment with your vegan specialty foods in a matching dish set as you snack and type in the “richest nation in the world.”

    WIC is meant to be a program to get those who are POOR on their feet (though it often fails, but I digress). It is meant to support women and children with the bare minimum sustenance required to stay alive. This is in a country that doesn’t (for the most part) value mothers or the overall health of their nation. If the U.S. valued family and the health of its citizens, a different approach to life, starting at birth, would be taken.

    Women do not get paid time off in many jobs and many women (myself included) are discriminated against in the workplace. Nevermind the fact that it’s “illegal.” It’s also illegal to “steal” open Wi-Fi or jaywalk, but you don’t see people taking that seriously either.

    Women do not get the time necessary to get adjusted to becoming a mom AND breastfeeding a baby with what modern day parenting demands. Convenience is created out of “necessity.” People over spend and don’t take responsibility for it (i.e. going into debt) but still won’t “do without” to make up for it. Employers (though mandated by law) don’t provide completely sanitary breastfeeding locations or pumping areas and most women are embarrassed to ask for special accommodations. More and more women are forced to try to work and it isn’t uncommon to read about how parents have their kids in daycare up to 10 hours a day in MAINSTREAM parenting magazines.

    What does this translate to? A society that is no longer based around child rearing or the ideology that a strong society starts with a strong household. There is not money in the budget to support the growing masses on programs, such as WIC. Ever hear of the 99%? They can’t afford organic in most cases. This is especially true in high cost of living areas like New York.

    Why should WIC recipients receive organic produce and top of the line products when we have a society of people who willingly consume McDonalds, even when they don’t have to? MOST people aren’t shopping at Whole Foods. Most people aren’t concerned about their health and healthy choices. The overwhelming evidence shows that the MAJORITY of people are living paycheck to paycheck and consume foods that are designed out of CONVENIENCE to revolve around our need to work. Getting pregnant, nursing or choosing to have kids doesn’t entitle anyone to organic foods, vegan specialties (though WIC does accommodate for even these requests) or higher quality food than that which the majority can afford. If you automatically received organic foods and all sorts of rewards for WIC, so many people would be applying and not working as much. (Believe me, there are workers in my area who TELL people they can’t work in order to continue receiving benefits though it’s “illegal” to stop working in order to continue receiving essentials like healthcare. MANY people stop working or just don’t take additional employment just so they can get help. Make one penny over the specified amount and you can kiss your chance of survival away. Sad we promote not working over teaching and helping our people to work and find jobs.)

    The bottom line is that while I understand your point that organic products are preferable to the foods you would turn your nose up at, even if absolutely poor and begging for the state’s aid in keeping you ALIVE, that isn’t a reality or even a possibility for our nation. We balk at the health care reform. I could go on and on about how healthcare is absolutely ESSENTIAL to combat all the health problems we now have as a nation and how I can’t get access to medical care (no matter how basic) because I have no insurance, even as a new mother (once you are past 6 months postpartum, it doesn’t mean you stop needing healthcare or medicaid, but the government feels you do). But people don’t want to pay for that either. Until they are at the ER and start to realize people actually DYING in ERs waiting for help because far too many people are in a crisis living in this country treating the ER as a routine care facility because doctors are turning them away, they don’t see the need to have a healthy start to prevent all these things.

  • VidyaNC

    Hi Anna, though four years later than your post, I agree with you about the limited supply of WIC vouchers for farmers market. I too am a WIC recipient (soon to be ex recipient) and have had a hard time to get the farmers market vouchers because I eat a plant based diet.
    In short, every time I call or go for my appointment, they are “sold out”. When ask when the vouchers come in, the common answer is: “they came in on such-such-date and those who had appointments on that day got them. I have asked them plenty of times that if they can make a list of those who are on a plant based diet and those who would love to use the farmers market to call us and let us know. For some reason, I do not know why they do not do that nor honor the request. Very unfair.

  • VidyaNC

    I had the same problem with my DD. I always got looks from the cashiers when I did not buy or only brought a jar or two of the baby food. One cashier told me, “why not buy all of them and then donate it to the local food pantry?” I did that right before she turned one and was no longer eligible for the puree’s.

  • VidyaNC

    I agree that WIC is a good example to those who are less fortunate (educationally), etc. And I also believe that there are no magic bullets. What I do not agree with is that WIC veggie and fruit vouchers are no more than $10. I fully breast feed and am still (my DD is currently 15months soon to be 16months) I did not see much difference between my prenatal vouchers and up until she turned 1 years old. There was not that much difference in the quantity nor the quality and in fact, the produce vouchers went from $10 to $6 to now $8.
    What really makes me upset is that WIC will not pay for peanut butter with just one or two simple ingredients: peanuts and or salt, BUT will pay for peanut butter with sugar and hydrogenated oils. That is very hypocritical. Also, they will not pay for freshly squeezed juices from the refrigerated isle, and I do not qualify for the frozen ones that can be re concentrated. Now I have to read the labels of juices carefully or avoid them all together like I do with the peanut butter.
    In short, when I come off of WIC, my diet will still consist of beans, rice, veggies, and fruits. I will choose for my family farm fresh eggs, better yet, buy my own chickens and “lay my own eggs” and buy peanut only peanut butter and I will eat more coconut, non-soy, non-dairy yogurt for the good probiotics for my guts health. So yes, it does teach people how to eat after the vouchers, they just have to be proactive.

  • VidyaNC

    This is a great discussion forum. I came here by Google searching why WIC pays for peanut butter filled with sugar and hydrogenated oils and not peanut butter with just peanuts and or salt.
    I would like to comment collectively about the breastfeeding support or lack thereof. I personally believe that I would not have been able to breast feed for as long as I have if my husband did not work full time and I worked part time on a flex schedule. Mind you, my part time job did not provided any economical benefits such as maternity leave, etc. So I do thank God for my husband and the stable income.
    I do understand that it is hard and the six week arbitrary date to return to work flies in the face of mothers who: Have to work, Want to breast feed exclusively, and who do not have any other alternatives.
    I believe that those who set up the FLA six week rule as law either: was made by men, high powered women who never breast feed, lack of anatomy and physiology training, a push from formula companies lobbyist, or a combination of the above.
    I am going to return to work full time next week in a preschool setting with my daughter to save up money to pay my way to nursing school and for her future daycare cost (that should be another topic LOL! ).
    I will continue to nurse her, but not as often. She and I will still enjoy our special relationship until she is two years old, she self weans or I dry up do to limited demand. Which ever comes first.

  • TheisticEvolution

    Only in this country are people complaining about their choices in FREE food after having children that they cannot afford the basic necessities for.