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WIC’s Addition Of Produce Applauded,
But Don’t Expect A Lift In Consumption

It is hard for us to remember when United’s Lorelei DiSogra, whom we profiled here, was not speaking passionately about getting produce into the Women’s, Infant and Children’s Program — or WIC. Now both United and PMA are enthused because it is almost upon us with the approval of an interim final rule.

First we heard from Lorelei herself:

Fruit and Vegetables Added to WIC Food Packages

In the first comprehensive revision to the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) food package since 1980, USDA published today in the Federal Register an interim final rule, adding monthly vouchers enabling WIC moms to purchase a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. The projected value of the new WIC fruit and vegetable vouchers totals more than $500 million per year, and will help transform the eating habits of WIC families.

United Fresh Produce Association has worked for more than a decade to lobby Congress, the Clinton Administration and now the Bush Administration to add fruits and vegetables to WIC to improve the health of WIC moms and kids. This rule aligns WIC Food Packages with the Dietary Guidelines for America and the current infant feeding recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics, and provides WIC participants with a wider variety of food. “This is a landmark day for the health of America’s children, and also for the produce industry,” said United Fresh Vice President of Nutrition and Health Dr. Lorelei DiSogra. “This small step will have mammoth impact on the health of WIC families, while driving more than $500 million in incremental sales of fruits and vegetables. That is truly a win-win for WIC families and our industry,” she said.

The Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, commonly known as WIC, is administered by USDA. WIC food packages provide supplemental foods designed to meet their specific nutritional needs and improve pregnancy outcome and child nutrition. More than 8.4 million low-income women, infants and children participate in WIC each year. WIC moms will now receive a fruit/vegetable voucher for $8 each month; WIC Children will receive a voucher for $6 per month and fully breastfeeding mothers will receive a voucher for $10 a month.

State WIC agencies must implement the provisions of the rule no later than August 5, 2009, eighteen months after the effective date of the interim rule. However, it is expected that some states will implement these changes sooner. USDA, the National WIC Association and state WIC agencies will work with retailers to ensure smooth implementation.

The inclusion of fruits and vegetables in WIC has been a top priority for United Fresh since the Clinton Administration, when United Fresh members first called on Congress and the USDA to revise WIC food packages. Lobbying for WIC reform has been a key part of the association’s efforts since that time, leading to a long-term partnership with the National WIC Association and the public health community to provide critical data to USDA, show that vouchers work well at retail, and demonstrate that WIC participants would purchase a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables when given a fruit/vegetable voucher.

Thanks to all United Fresh members who sent comments to USDA on the proposed rule, spoke to their Congressional delegations and supported our research and Congressional Briefings. Your engagement and support enhanced our ability to play a leadership role in this effort. United Fresh will continue to partner with the National WIC Association to insure effective implementation of the new WIC food packages.

PMA was also in the Pundit inbox:

PMA Applauds USDA for Increasing Fruit and Vegetable Access to Nation’s Nutritionally
At-risk Moms and Young Children

Leaders of the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) today welcomed the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) announcement that mothers and young children participating in the federal government’s nutrition safety-net program would soon be guaranteed greater access to fruits and vegetables for their better health.

Mothers and their children participating in the federal government’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) will soon begin receiving vouchers allowing fruit and vegetable purchases for the first time, according to an agency interim rulemaking published Dec. 6 in the Federal Register. Vouchers of $8 will be provided to each participating non-breastfeeding mother, and $6 vouchers to each child; breastfeeding moms will receive $10 vouchers. The vouchers can be used to purchase fruits and vegetables of all forms, including fresh, frozen, canned and dried; white potatoes are the only produce item that is specifically excluded. (Under the current program, only breastfeeding mothers are allowed to use vouchers to purchase vegetables, and are limited to carrots only.)

As a result of these changes, the percent of WIC vouchers devoted to purchasing fruits and vegetables will increase from 0 percent to 2.7 percent. The value of these vouchers for fruit and vegetable purchases will total $934.3 million from 2008-2012, according to the Federal Register.

“This is healthy news for our nation’s nutritionally at-risk mothers and their young children, who will now be able to enjoy more healthy, delicious fruits and vegetables without adding further to their financial worries,” said PMA Senior Vice President of Industry Products and Services, Lorna Christie. “We applaud USDA for using its policies and programs to level the playing field, and to put the goals of the dietary guidelines within closer reach of this economically disadvantaged population.”

Christie noted PMA’s disappointment that USDA excluded white potatoes.

“Given how hard USDA otherwise worked to ensure that program participants would have access to a wide variety of fruits and vegetables in various forms, we’re disappointed that they would specifically exclude a popular staple like white potatoes, which is immersed in American as well as other cuisines,” said Christie.

The fruit and vegetable vouchers are one of many changes to the WIC program that are intended to bring the program closer in alignment with the latest federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans, issued in 2005. This rulemaking is the first time that the 33-year-old WIC program’s age- and nutritional needs-based “food packages” have been significantly reviewed since 1980. The program serves approximately 8.3 million low-income pregnant and lactating women, their infants and young children up to age five, providing food vouchers and other related support.

PMA and other groups and companies including the Produce for Better Health Foundation had pressed for the need to increase fruit and vegetable access to both USDA during the rulemaking process, and to an Institute of Medicine (IOM) blue-ribbon science panel that had advised USDA on needed WIC program changes. The IOM panel had advised USDA to establish vouchers of $10 for women and $8 for children; USDA reduced the amount so that the changes to the program would be cost-neutral.

Other provisions in the rulemaking that are of interest to the fruit and vegetable industry include:

USDA opted not to mandate purchase of dark leafy green or orange vegetables, to ensure that participants have the widest access to fruits and vegetables possible, though the nutritional benefits of those particular foods will be conveyed in WIC nutrition education efforts.

The rule gives states, which execute the WIC program at the local level, the authority to authorize farmers’ markets to accept WIC vouchers.

Vouchers will no longer be provided to purchase juices, including fruit and vegetable juices, for infants under six months of age; instead, the agency expects that whole versions of these foods will be provided. Juice allotments for children 1-4 years of age were also reduced.

The rule can be viewed at
. It is effective Feb. 4, 2008, and must be implemented by states not later than Aug. 5, 2009. Comments on the interim rule are due by Feb. 1, 2010.

And the consumer press has picked up on the story as well:

USDA Revises Food Program for
Women and Children

WASHINGTON, Dec 6 (Reuters) — A popular program that provides food assistance to low-income women and their children received its first overhaul in more than 30 years Thursday with the addition of fruits, vegetables and whole grains to the list of grocery items covered by the U.S. government.

The Agriculture Department said the new list reflects the changing nutritional needs of participants in the Women, Infants and Children food program and will help combat obesity. Created in 1972, the WIC program supplements the diet of 8.5 million low-income pregnant women, new mothers and young children annually.

The revised list of foods that can be purchased with WIC vouchers is the result of a review that was first announced in August 2006. It does not change the value of benefits, about $39 a month, to qualified low-income pregnant women, and children up to the age of 5 who are at nutritional risk.

USDA heard from “WIC agencies, from stakeholders and, of course, the participants themselves to revise (WIC) so it does reflect the latest nutrition, science and dietary recommendations for Americans,” said Acting Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner. “We believe this rule will do just that.”

The revised program provides women and children with less saturated fat and cholesterol and allows more fiber, fruits and vegetables.

Recipients will be allowed to substitute items — such as replacing whole wheat bread with soft corn tortillas, or canned, frozen and dried fruits and vegetables in place of their fresh counterparts — in order to reflect cultural differences and make it easier for people to participate.

The revised WIC program also provides incentives for women to continue breast-feeding by providing less formula to partially breast-fed infants, and giving fruit and vegetable vouchers of $10 to fully breast-feeding women, compared with $8 for all other women.

These changes have “the potential to transform not only the eating habits of WIC mothers, infants and young children, but the eating habits of all Americans,” said Douglas Greenaway, executive director with the National WIC Association.

USDA received more than 46,000 comments on the revisions. Most were supportive, USDA said, but criticism came from the dairy, juice and other industries that will be receiving less support.

Key reductions include the amount of eggs WIC recipients can buy with their vouchers, one dozen a month, down from 2 to 2-1/2 dozen. Juice for children ages 1 through 4 years, for example, would be reduced to 128 fluid ounces from 288, and milk would be cut to 16 quarts per month from 24 quarts.

”We have no issues at all with what they are trying to do, trying to include some fruits and vegetables. But we were hoping it wouldn’t be done at the expense of eggs,” said Howard Magwire, a spokesman with the United Egg Producers.

The National Milk Producers Federation said reducing milk and cheese support would deprive many WIC participants of key nutrients, such as calcium and potassium.

USDA, which oversees the state-run programs, said states have until Aug. 5, 2009, to implement the changes.

A Washington think tank, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said in late November that up to half a million people could be denied WIC benefits in the coming year because of rising food prices and enrollment that was larger than expected.

It is interesting to note that Reuters in this article points out something that is not mentioned in the fresh produce trade association’s releases:

Recipients will be allowed to substitute items — such as replacing whole wheat bread with soft corn tortillas, or canned, frozen and dried fruits and vegetables in place of their fresh counterparts — in order to reflect cultural differences and make it easier for people to participate.

Note the right to substitute canned, frozen and dried fruits and vegetables for fresh. You can be sure that neither United nor PMA asked for that.

We recently ran a couple of pieces that questioned whether the Produce for Better Health Foundation’s inclusion of frozen and canned didn’t create the need for a fresh-specific promotional program. The first piece was entitled, Will Fresh Industry Foot Bill If Frozen/Canned Uses More Matters Logo?, and the next was entitled, Facts Obscured About Frozen Produce On General Mills/Green Giant Web Site.

When we see this right to use canned and frozen making it into this rule, we are suddenly reminded that one source of opposition to getting approval for things such as the Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Program to provide snacks in the school is the frozen and canned industry. A hunch we have had confirmed by players on the Hill.

The industry is going to have to carefully analyze the future of our relationship with canned and frozen product. Can we continue to break bread over at PBH while we battle on the Hill?

When it comes to getting produce into the WIC program, we are of two minds: First, it has been an initiative for a long time, and we congratulate all those who have worked so hard to make it a reality.

We, of course, endorse the initiative. There is no reason to exclude produce from WIC and doing so can send an incorrect message about the healthfulness of produce.

Yet we confess that we can’t see how it will make much difference. We published early on a piece entitled, WIC Juggling Act, which pointed out that because USDA was not planning to increase the dollar value given to each recipient, adding produce was going to be a challenge since every dollar for produce had to come from another commodity.

We also questioned whether it would actually increase produce purchases:

…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.

This was followed by a piece based on a letter we received from a well-connected reader:

I had an opportunity to speak with Stephen Christianson who manages WIC, and I asked if there is any evidence that this actually increases the consumption of fruits and vegetables. He said that he didn’t know!

My point was: let’s say a family has $200 to spend on groceries per month. And of that $200, $35 comes from WIC. If based on their normal consumption, they spend $40 on fruits and vegetables total, who cares where the money comes from? Shifting where the money comes from doesn’t automatically increase the consumption.

All we have done is shift some of the spending on fruits and vegetables from their own cash to government money. It’s not increasing the size of the pie, it’s only changing how they pay for their slice.

I think you said it in one of your [PRODUCE BUSINESS] editorials several months ago. Our efforts have to be focused on education, not these minimally incremental changes to a government food program.

Our writer was, of course, speaking of the substitution effect — i.e., if you spend $80 a month on gasoline and your employer announces that he will be reducing your salary by $20 a month and adding in a gas coupon for $20, would this make you spend more on gasoline?

So now, consumers who used to buy eggs and juice with their WIC funds and bought produce for cash will now buy produce with WIC funds and extra eggs and juice for cash. There is little reason to expect much increase in fresh produce consumption — even more so now that the produce allotment is shared with canned and frozen.

It is a victory for right and a victory for the industry. Maybe one day, WIC funds will be increased and we will be well-positioned to get a share of that increase. But we wouldn’t count on much additional business coming from this anytime soon.

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