Spotlight Exclusives

WIC Advocates Push for Extended Fruit and Vegetable Increase

Brian Dittmeier Brian Dittmeier, posted on

Like all safety net programs, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) has faced enormous pressures to meet the demands of the pandemic. Forced by the necessity to adopt more digital and tele-access for its clients, WIC saw enrollments rise and clinics develop new practices that advocates hope can become a permanent part of the program. Brian Dittmeier, senior public policy counsel for the National WIC Association, the education arm and advocacy voice for the program, spoke with Spotlight recently about changes to WIC, including an expanded fruit and vegetable portion of the food package. The conversation has been lightly edited for content and length.

Why don’t we start by just explaining for our readers the increased fruit and vegetable portion of the WIC food package.

The American Rescue Plan Act made a historic investment in WIC’s ability to enhance families’ access to healthy food. Just twelve years ago, WIC introduced fruits and vegetables into the food package and now the Biden administration has allowed for four months of added value that triples the overall value of the WIC fruit and vegetable benefit and nearly doubles the overall benefit for WIC participants. So, we’re seeing families who previously had only $9 or $11 per month for fruits and vegetables now get $35 per month.

So, this is a really significant change?

Exactly. It’s an unprecedented investment in access to nutritious foods for young kids.

And I realize this has just gone into effect, but is there a sense of how this is impacting WIC clients?

We’re hearing unbridled enthusiasm for this fruit and vegetable increase. Frankly, many families came to WIC at the beginning of the pandemic, back in March and April of 2020, and how WIC operates requires that families re-apply each year for the program. And so, as those children were coming up for re-application in March and April of 2021, the American Rescue Plan had already passed. When they heard that increased fruit and vegetables were coming this summer, it was such a huge selling point for families to continue to stay on WIC and to get the nutrition support that WIC delivers.

Is there a chance that this can be made permanent?

Yes, we’re very encouraged that the Biden White House has proposed to extend the fruit and vegetable increase for another year, through September of 2022. And on top of that, the Department of Agriculture is taking a look at the foods WIC offers and is evaluating what changes should be made in the long term. The National WIC Association just put out a report where we’re calling for not only continuing the fruit and vegetable increase but upping the value of the WIC food package in other areas as well, including protein foods. We know that the closer the WIC package is to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the healthier the outcomes are. Over the past ten years, with the introduction of fruits and vegetables, we know that WIC has had a marked increase in making children’s diets more varied and higher quality, and also reducing childhood obesity rates for WIC-enrolled toddlers. If we want to deliver the nutrition security that sets kids up for future life success, then we need to be doubling down on the value of the food package and making sure that kids have access to healthy foods like fruits and vegetables.

I know this is a very complicated process, but in broad strokes, how much of this can be done by USDA and how much needs congressional approval?

It’s a complicated question. It is a process that can be done by USDA but requires Congress to fund the added value. So, we’re working with policymakers, both in the administration and in Congress, to build the support that we know is there to enhance outcomes for healthier kids, lower health-care costs and increased return on investment for our fruit and vegetable producers in the agriculture sector.

And WIC is a program, even in these politically polarized times, that has pretty deep bi-partisan approval, correct?

Precisely. The four-month food and vegetable increase was actually a bi-partisan proposal that was introduced by Rep. Kim Schrier (D) of the state of Washington and the late Rep. Ron Wright (R) of Texas.

Back to the impact of the pandemic, WIC was one of many safety net programs that was stretched to meet unprecedented needs and had to evolve in many ways. Talk about some of those changes, particularly those you’d like to see stay in place.

We’ve been speaking about the value of WIC benefit but a huge part of what WIC does is to provide nutritional and breastfeeding counseling to families. It’s not just access to food, but it’s holistic public health services. Traditionally, those services have been delivered in person at community-based clinics. And of course, the first consideration when COVID-19 started becoming a public health emergency was, how do we continue to operate services while respecting CDC recommendations, staying socially distanced, and protecting the health and safety of our participants, our clinic staff and all of their families and neighbors?

A critical step was integrating and embracing tele-health in WIC and allowing some families to apply for WIC without that in-person certification. We’ve had huge steps forward in leveraging technology and tele-health options and moving WIC into a more digital service delivery model. We know that while some pieces of the pandemic-era waivers will go away at the end of the public health emergency, we also know that this is a substantial shift in how we deliver WIC services, how we meet our participants where they are, that we need to continue these flexibilities going forward. That’s going to require some policy change and so we’re encouraged that champions like (Sens.) Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and John Boozman (R-Ark.) are moving forward on a Child Nutrition Reauthorization and we hope to see that done this year. But we also know that this will need on-the-ground work with WIC clinics and their partners in the health care sector to make sure that families are continuing to access these programs and have the technologies and options available to access these services in a convenient and accessible way moving forward.

Do you feel like you’ve seen the impact of easier access on enrollment and re-enrollment rates?

Most certainly. We’ve seen nationwide an increase of about 3.3 percent between January 2020 and February 2021 in participation, but we’ve seen higher rates of increased participation in states that have been able to fully leverage remote services and tele-health options, up to about 6.6 percent average increases in enrollment, with some states reporting increases in the double digits, as high as 20 percent. We know that families want convenience, accessibility and flexibility and that’s what remote services provide.

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