WIC Program Needs Major Overhaul, Say Doctors
Food Package Includes Tuna Despite Mercury Risk, Omits Most Fruits and Veggies, and Snubs Lactose-Intolerant Minorities
WASHINGTON—The federal government’s feeding program for low-income women, infants, and children needs a major nutrition makeover, says the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in testimony submitted this week to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service. The food package offered by the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) is undergoing its first review since 1980. In 2002, Congress appropriated $4.462 billion for the program; it serves more than 7 million people a month.
“Like many government nutrition programs, WIC has the meat and dairy industries’ fingerprints all over it,” says Jennifer Keller, R.D., PCRM’s nutrition projects coordinator. “For example, one of the few eligible foods is mercury-laden tuna, a product the FDA warns breastfeeding women to avoid. At the same time, there are far too few fruits and vegetables and no soy or rice beverages, despite the fact that so many of the program’s participants are lactose intolerant.”
PCRM’s recent analysis of the WIC food package reveals:
- Fresh fruits and vegetables are not available to all WIC recipients. Carrots are the only fresh vegetable available from supermarkets. Although the USDA launched a Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program in 1992 to expand access to fruits and vegetables, less than one-third of all WIC participants used this under-funded program in 2002 and it is not available in all states. Fresh fruits and veggies are loaded with vitamins, fiber, and other nutrients and would help replace empty calorie snacks such as candy bars.
- The WIC food package offers eggs, cheese, and tuna despite abundant scientific evidence that these foods have associated health risks. All animal products, of course, are loaded with fat and cholesterol and devoid of fiber. And tuna—because so much of it is contaminated with mercury—is of special concern to breastfeeding women. PCRM recommends that WIC add more healthy plant proteins, including low-salt canned beans, frozen peas and beans, tofu, and tempeh.
- Although nearly 60 percent of WIC participants are African American or Hispanic—and the majority of those individuals are lactose-intolerant—soymilk is excluded from the WIC food package. The current policy clearly snubs individuals who are unable to digest dairy sugar. A growing body of research shows that although calcium is an important nutrient for healthy bones, cow’s milk and other dairy products are not necessary for bone health, and can, in fact, be harmful to health. PCRM recommends that enriched soymilks should be offered as an option after weaning. Soymilk not only reduces digestive problems, but its protein helps protect against heart disease.
Founded in 1985, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is a nonprofit health organization that promotes preventive medicine, conducts clinical research, and encourages higher standards for ethics and effectiveness in research.
Jeanne S. McVey
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