by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: WIC

Nov 15 2023

What’s up with WIC: enrollment low and declining

USDA sent out a news release about the current funding status of WIC, the  Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). 

 More than 6.7 million women, infants, and children participate in WIC — the program serves just under half of all infants born in the U.S. 

Unless Congress acts to fund the program, things could get worse.  

A new report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA), Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), provides estimates of people eligible for WIC benefits nationally, by state, by race and ethnicity, and, for the first time in this series of reports, by urbanicity. 

 

Evidence shows that WIC participation results in better pregnancy outcomes, including fewer infant deaths, premature births, and low birthweight infants and the program has been shown to reduce health care costs and increase preventative care and immunization rates among children. 

The USDA says WIC is Vital – but Vastly Underutilized, Research Finds 

The just released study reports that an average of 12.13 million moms, babies, and young children were eligible for WIC in 2021. However, only 51%, or 6.21 million, of those who were eligible actually participated…A failure to fully fund WIC this fiscal year means some states would likely need to put eligible families on waiting lists. 

Comment

WIC differs from SNAP in three important ways.

  1. WIC is not an entitlement; participation can only go as high as the funding permts.  Women can be eligible, but not get benefits if the money runs out.
  2. WIC charge cards allow purchase only of WIC-eligible foods.
  3. Congress required WIC to be evaluated for its effects on child health.

For a long time, the funding only covered about half of women and children eligible for WIC.  That changed about 25 years ago when Congress decided—on the basis of evidence produced by evaluations—to provide enough funding to cover everyone who was eligible.  Enrollments rose.

This report documents problems with enrollments in the program; enrollment is low and declining, especially among groups who need the benefits the most.

Any number of reasons could account for the underuse and decline:

  • Difficulties dealing with bureaucracy
  • Immigrant concerns about status vulnerability
  • Lack of transportation
  • Not speaking English
  • Stigma
  • Not knowing about eligibility
  • Lack of outreach

Yes, Congress should fund WIC at a 100% level.  It’s demonstrably one of the best programs going.

USDA should be doing all it can to address that list of barriers—all of them.

The reports

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Apr 18 2023

A warning: COVID benefits are ending and their loss will hurt

The USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service sent out one of the saddest emailed notices I have ever received, announcing the end of relief measures enacted during the COVID-19 emergency.

The FNS says it is working closely with participants, States, retailers, other federal agencies, and the White House to help with the transition.

This will not be easy.  The COVID-induced increases in benefits did much to reduce family and child poverty as well as food insecurity.

What follows is slightly edited, mainly to reduce repetitive statements.

End of the National COVID-19 Public Health Emergency – Impact on FNS Programs. 

The national public health emergency (PHE) put in place at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to expire on May 11, 2023. The end of the public health emergency…will trigger changes that impact low-income individuals and families.

  • SNAP Emergency Allotments: The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2023, required that pandemic-related SNAP Emergency Allotments (EA) be terminated after the issuance of February 2023 benefits.  See: The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
  • SNAP ABAWD Time Limit: Beginning July 1, 2023, able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) participating in SNAP will once again be required to meet the ABAWD work requirements or could risk losing benefits as soon as October 2023.
  • Temporary Student Exemptions:  Beginning July 1, 2023, the temporary student exemptions – which allowed college students who wouldn’t typically be eligible for SNAP to receive benefits during the public health emergency – will begin to be phased out, impacting students as they are due for recertification.
  • SNAP Administrative Adjustments and Waivers:  FNS is working very closely with States to help them successfully transition back to normal operations, including offering four certification-related waivers specifically designed to support the transition to post-pandemic program operations.
  • Child Nutrition Programs: FNS offered States and child nutrition program operators extensive flexibilities during COVID to ensure they could continue to serve kids the nutrition they needed. Two of the flexibilities currently offered – CACFP benefits for young adults in shelters and offsite monitoring – are tied to the PHE and, therefore, will be coming to an end. See: Child Nutrition Programs
  • Pandemic EBT: Since March 2020, Pandemic EBT, also known as P-EBT, has been helping eligible families cover food costs for kids who typically received free and reduced-priced school meals or were eligible through their child care facilities. These benefits will continue through the end of summer 2023 for school children, but will end when the PHE ends on May 11, 2023, for children in child care. The new nationwide Summer EBT program recently passed into law will be available starting in summer 2024, and will help families in need continue to put food on the table during the summer when children aren’t receiving meals in schools. See: Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (P-EBT)  
  • WIC: After the end of the public health emergency, most of the flexibilities FNS provided to WIC participants during the pandemic will continue to be available under a separate authority Congress provided FNS in the American Rescue Plan Act. With this authority, WIC state agencies can continue to offer – and build and improve upon – remote services after the PHE ends. Infant formula waivers, which are not tied to the PHE, will be phased out on a different timeline through the end of June 2023.  See:  Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)

Additional information is available on the FNS website, here.

Comment: I consider this a national tragedy, and a huge mistake.  If COVID-19 proved anything, it was that these measures were highly effective in reducing child poverty in the United States.  Now what.  We go back to higher levels?  As I said, a national tragedy.

Congress will have much to answer for when the results of this shameful decision become to be apparent.

Aug 4 2022

USDA on the job: feeding kids

I’ve been trying to keep up with USDA press releases, especially those related to food assistance for children.   Here are a few from the last couple of weeks.

Effective July 1, 2022, the reimbursement schools receive for each meal served will increase by approximately $0.68 per free/reduced-price lunch and $0.32 per free/reduced price breakfast. Other reimbursement rates, including rates for paid school meals and child care meals, are available online.

With this comes:

II.  USDA Awards over $70 Million in Grants, Increases Access to Local, Healthy Foods for Kids, Jul 25, 2022  

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced it is awarding more than $10 million in Farm to School grants to 123 projects across the country…[these] will serve more than 3 million children at more than 5,000 schools in 44 states and the District of Columbia.

Grants by state are here.    Grant awardees with project descriptions are here.

III.  USDA Extends Flexibility that’s Helping Manufacturers, States get Formula to WIC Families Jul 28, 2022

Under this flexibility – which is now extended through the end of September – USDA is covering the added cost of non-contract formula to make it financially feasible for states to allow WIC participants to purchase alternate sizes, forms, or brands of infant formula.

This has to do with the infant formula shortage.  About half the infant formula in America is purchased by the WIC program, which usually contracts with one formula company to serve participants.  The USDA has relaxed restrictions on brands and imports to help deal with the shortages.  For example, it:

  • Provides a toolkit and guidance to WIC state agencies to assist with distributing imported formula.
  • Calls on states to take advantage of all available WIC flexibilities…Now, nearly all state agencies have applicable waivers in place.
  • Provides guidance to Child and Adult Care Food Program operators to help them navigate the shortage.
  • Provides an Infant Formula Shortage Response webpage

Cheers to USDA for taking action.  Action is what our kids deserve.

Jul 15 2022

Weekend reading: food assistance

The USDA has released its annual report on food assistance.

 

What Did This Study Find?

  • Spending on USDA’s domestic food and nutrition assistance programs reached a historic high of $182.5 billion. (it was $127.5 billion in 2020).
  • The increase was primarily driven by increases in USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) spending.

Other findings:

  • On average, 41.5 million people participated in SNAP each month, 4 percent more than in the previous fiscal year.
  • A temporary benefit increase, the expansion of emergency allotments, and higher participation contributed to a historic high in Federal SNAP spending of $113.8 billion, 44 percent more than in FY 2020
  • On average, 6.2 million people participated in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) each month, nearly the same as the previous fiscal year; Total WIC spending was $5.0 billion, 1 percent more than in FY 2020.
  • Pandemic-related disruptions to child nutrition programs resulted in 8.4 billion total meals being served across the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), School Breakfast Program (SBP), Child and Adult Care

And all that spending is one of the reasons why poverty rates went down.

Jan 26 2021

Some good news—and about time—for food assistance

I’ll start with a déjà vu, thanks to Daniel Bowman Simon, who reminds me that President John F. Kennedy’s first executive orderwas to expand food distribution programs that both helped farmers and fed the poor.

President Biden is taking steps in the same direction On January 22, the USDA announced:

  • P-EBT Benefit Increase: “the Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (P-EBT) connects low-income families with kids with food dollars equivalent to the value of the meals missed due to COVID-related school and childcare closures….USDA will increase the current daily benefit amount by approximately 15% to tackle the serious problem of child food insecurity during this school year when need is greatest.”  This is great but the big problem with this program has been delays.  Let’s hope those get fixed too.
  • SNAP Emergency Allotments to States: USDA wants to “allow states to provide extra SNAP benefits through Emergency Allotments to the lowest-income households.”  This is because the increases to SNAP authorized by Congress were set up in such a way that they did not go to the lowest-income households (37% of SNAP households) most in need.
  • Revising the Thrifty Food Plan Per 2018 Farm Bill:  This plan, the basis for determining SNAP benefits, is decades old, out of date, and unrealistic for SNAP households.  USDA needs to revise it.

In addition, Biden is calling for More Congressional Action:  

  • Extend the 15% SNAP benefit increase
  • Invest another $3 billion through the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).
  • Look for creative ways to support restaurants as a critical link in the food supply chain to help feed families in need
  • Provide U.S. Territories with $1 billion in additional nutrition assistance funding

OK.  This does not go far enough and who knows what this Congress will do.  But it’s a start, and a good one.

But that’s not all: Biden has appointed Stacy Dean as deputy undersecretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services, the piece of USDA responsible for food assistance.  This puts her in charge of all this.

I consider this a superb appointment.  Nobody knows more about food assistance programs.  I learned this when I was editing a set of papers about SNAP for the American Journal of Public Health in 2019.  She and colleagues at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities wrote the basic article for the series.

So: our job now is to loudly and strongly support everything USDA is doing to improve and expand food assistance, and to encourage the agency to take even bigger steps.  Make sure Stacy gets all the support she needs to really do sometime to improve food security for the millions of American adults and children who need it badly. 

 

 

 

Nov 26 2019

Good news: Changes to the WIC package are associated with a lower prevalence of obesity among young kids

Here’s some good news for a change.  The CDC announces that young children enrolled in the WIC program are reducing their prevalence of obesity.

The study: State-Specific Prevalence of Obesity Among Children Aged 2–4 Years Enrolled in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children — United States, 2010–2016.  Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) November 22, 2019 / 68(46);1057–1061.

The happy result:  “Among children aged 2–4 years enrolled in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), obesity prevalence decreased from 15.9% in 2010 to 13.9% in 2016 and during 2010–2014, decreased in 34 of the 56 WIC state or territory agencies.”

One possible explanation:  WIC revised its food packages a few years ago to emphasize healthier food options in order to

promote fruit, vegetable, and whole wheat product purchases; support breastfeeding; and give WIC state and territory agencies more flexibility to accommodate cultural food preferences….In addition, the availability of healthier foods and beverages in authorized WIC stores has increased. Children enrolled in WIC consumed more fruits, vegetables, and whole grain products and less juice, white bread, and whole milk after the revisions than they did before.

Comment: Here is evidence that eating more healthfully promotes healthier body weights.  Let’s do more of this.

Note: The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s State of Childhood Obesity report provides an interactive map, state by state.

Jun 25 2018

Trump’s government reorganization plan: really?

The Trump Administration announced its new plan to reorganize government.  Obviously, this affects the agencies dealing with agriculture, food, and nutrition issues—USDA, FDA, and FDA’s parent agency, HHS.  Here is my translation of the major shifts being proposed:

  • Move most of USDA’s nutrition programs—SNAP, WIC, the Child and Adult Care Food Program, and the Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program—to HHS.
  • Move FDA’s food safety oversight to USDA, putting USDA in charge of all food safety.
  • Downsize the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps.

Congress would have to vote on all this so there’s no point in going too deeply into the weeds at this point, but I have just a few comments:

  • Putting all food safety oversight in one agency is a good idea, but not if it’s USDA.  USDA’s principal purpose to to support agribusiness.  Holding agribusiness responsible for food safety puts USDA in conflict of interest.
  • Moving SNAP and WIC into HHS (or whatever its new name will be) would make sense if HHS weren’t already overwhelmed by everything else it has to deal with (more than a trillion dollars in spending).
  • The proposal still leaves school breakfasts and lunches and commodity programs in USDA, meaning that food assistance programs will still be split between USDA and HHS.
  • Downsizing the Commissioned Corps doesn’t make much sense either.  Public health needs all the health it can get.

Whatever happens with this is unlikely to happen quickly.  USDA will not be happy about losing SNAP’s $80 billion a year or WIC’s $6 billion budget.

Many other agencies are also affected by these proposals.  My prediction: Congress will have a lot of trouble coming to agreement on these ideas.

Maybe this is just another attempt to distract us from more pressing matters.

Law Professor Timothy Lytton, an expert on food regulatory policy, has plenty to say about why moving food safety to USDA won’t work (in my paraphrasing):

  • Congressional committees are unlikely to support any reorganization that would reduce their power.
  • Industry associations are unlikely to support a reorganization that would disrupt their influence with existing agencies.
  • The two agencies are different in jurisdiction, powers and expertise; a merger would require a complete overhaul of federal food safety laws and regulations, a task of extraordinary legal and political complexity.
  • A merger might create new forms of fragmentation.
  • Reorganization is expensive and will take years.  The payoff is unclear.

As I’ve explained before, plans for a single food safety agency have been in the works for years, but have encountered many barriers.  The Food Safety Modernization Act was meant to be step #1 in a three-step process:

  1. Pass and implement rules governing FDA’s oversight of pretty much all foods except meat and poultry (this is now done).
  2. Fix USDA’s food safety rules governing meat and poultry so they are consistent with FDA’s (in the talking stage, hopefully).
  3. Merge the food safety responsibilities in one agency.

These proposals, alas, ignore step #2.  Good luck with that.

Nov 22 2016

Some good news: childhood obesity declines in low-income children–a bit

The CDC and USDA are collaborating to track the prevalence of obesity in children ages 2 – 4 who participate in the Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).

In a new report, the agencies find obesity prevalence to have increased from 14% in 2000 to 15.9% in 2010.   But here’s the good news:  it dropped to 14.5% in 2014.

More good news: it decreased significantly among toddlers in these groups:

  • Non-Hispanic whites
  • Non-Hispanic blacks
  • Hispanics
  • American Indian/Alaska Natives and Asians/Pacific Islanders
  • 61% of the 56 agencies in states, DC, and US territories

The not-so-good news is that obesity in WIC kids is still higher than the national average among kids 2 – 5 years (8.9%), but this trend is in the right direction.

What accounts for it?  The report lists several possibilities:

Let’s keep doing more of the same and keep that trend heading downward.