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WIC Juggling Act

There is nothing more painful in politics than a zero-sum game. The perishable food industry finds itself creating crossfire over the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC for short.

For some time now, the produce industry has lobbied to see fruits and vegetables included in the national program. Now the USDA has proposed substantial changes to the program, particularly the addition of whole grains and fruits and vegetables. The United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association expressed agreement, and the Produce Marketing Association expressed its praise for the decision.

However, Congress isn’t allocating any more money for WIC, so this gain for produce and whole grains, plus some for canned fish and some ethnic foods, has to come out of someone else’s federal dollars. The dairy industry will get hurt, so the International Dairy Foods Association and the National Milk Producers Federation jointly expressed their concern. The egg industry will also be cut back, so the American Egg Board responded negatively. Juice is being cut back as well, but the juice association must have not had my e-mail. You can be sure they don’t like it either.

The USDA has made the only possible call, but it is easy to understand why the dairy and egg folks and the juice folks are upset.

The proposed changes roughly follow the recommendations made by the Institute of Medicine, one of the national academies that advise the nation on science, engineering and medicine. It also brings the WIC program into closer accordance with the current dietary recommendations.

However, the WIC program gives vouchers worth about $35 per month. So it is not as if anyone was getting such an overdose of anything before the changes. And there are always arguments to be made. According to Welch’s spokesperson, Jim Callahan, “Allowing more juice would help ensure kids are getting the vitamin C they need and discourage kids from drinking soda or other sweetened drinks.”

In truth, the fight may give each association the opportunity to earn some credit with its members for fighting the good fight, and it is a triumph for good government to have whatever money is there to be allocated based on science, not politics or tradition.

But money is a fungible commodity, and most families supplement the WIC allotments for food with their own cash. So the net result of a change in the WIC program is likely to be a re-shuffling of which items are purchased with WIC funds and which are purchased with cash.

There will not likely be any substantial change in sales of any food items, only a change in how those items are paid for.

The biggest nutritional change may actually come about in the requirement for whole grain cereals. This is a category that many WIC mothers weren’t buying at all, and so the change may create substantial increases in whole grain cereal purchases.

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