by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: WIC

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.

Feb 5 2015

Food politics in action: Potatoes!

The National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine (IOM) has just recommended that white potatoes be included in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program.*

This recommendation contradicts previous policy, which excluded white potatoes from the WIC package on the grounds that starchy vegetables are not lacking in the diets of WIC recipients and it would be better to use WIC to encourage consumption of a broader range of vegetables.

As I’ve discussed in earlier posts, the potato lobby objected, insisted that white potatoes were just as healthy as other starchy vegetables, and that women weren’t eating enough of them.  It got Congress to overturn USDA’s restrictions on the number of times white potatoes (usually fried) could be served in the school lunch program.

And it got Congress to order USDA  to put potatoes back into WIC—unless it conducted a study demonstrating that potatoes should be excluded.  The USDA gave up and told state agencies to allow potatoes to be purchased by WIC recipients starting next summer.

In deciding in favor of potatoes, the committee said it is concerned that “”Current consumption of starchy vegetables does not meet 2010 DGA [Dietary Guidelines for Americans] recommendations for this food group.”

Really?  I have a hard time believing that WIC recipients are suffering from lack of potatoes in their diets.  Potatoes are fine foods, but highly caloric when prepared in the usual ways.  Encouraging WIC recipients to choose leafy greens and other vegetables seems like a good idea.

But the IOM committee took the 2010 Dietary Guidelines at face value and says this is what the rules are until changed.  So they effectively tossed this hot potato into lap of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines committee.

While waiting to see that committee’s report—expected soon—the take-home lesson is clear: lobbying works.

*The USDA has a new report out on WIC: The WIC Program: Background, Trends, and Economic Issues, 2015 Edition.

Dec 11 2014

Congress again micromanages nutrition standards

Congress, in its infinite wisdom, is again using the appropriations process to micromanage nutrition standards for school meals and the WIC program, against the advice of the Institute of Medicine and other health experts.

The new appropriations bill includes several provisions relevant to issues I discuss frequently here.  By all reports, this is the best that can be expected, given the makeup of this Congress.

  • Section 751 grants exemptions to states from the whole grain requirements for school meals “Provided, That school food authorities demonstrate hardship…in procuring specific whole grain products which are acceptable to the students and compliant with the whole grain-rich requirements (my translation: forget whole grains and recommendations by health experts.  They are way too much trouble).
  • Section 752 says that no federal funds may be used to pay the salaries of people doing work “that would require a reduction in the quantity of sodium contained in federally reimbursed meals, foods, and snacks sold in schools…until the latest scientific research establishes the reduction is beneficial for children (We know more about the effects of salt on health than do health professionals and expert committees).
  • Section 753 says Congress won’t pay the salaries of anybody who tries to “exclude or restrict, he eligibility of any variety of fresh, whole, or cut vegetables (except for vegetables with added sugars, fats, or oils) from being provided under the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (no, you can’t keep white potatoes out of the WIC program).

Chalk these up to effective lobbying by the School Nutrition Association, makers of salty snacks, and the potato lobby.

The good news, such as it is:

  • Congress did not roll back most of the USDA’s food standards for school meals.
  • It only cut SNAP by $400 million.
  • It only cut WIC by $93 million.

These must be considered enormous victories, given the circumstances.

Addition, December 12:  The Hagstrom Report quotes USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack:

On the provision to require the availability of white potatoes in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), Vilsack said, “With all due respect to the politicians who make the law, I have more confidence in pediatricians and more confidence in medical science than in political science.” 

 

 

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?

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