Starting this month, participants in the federally funded WIC food assistance program can receive fruits, vegetables, whole grain breads and some other previously excluded products through the program.
In order to increase the variety of WIC-approved foods without raising the program's cost - a caveat placed by Congress - administrators reduced the amount of milk, eggs, cheese and juice allowed each month. Fruit juice for infants was eliminated altogether.
The changes are just fine with Juneau resident Kelsey Kizer, who bought her 2-year-old daughter wheat bread, fruit and vegetables from Fred Meyer on Thursday using WIC vouchers.
"Before, we got way too much milk and juice," she said. "I'm glad they updated the selection to fit what we find healthy these days. It shows me that they really care about my daughter's nutrition."
Kizer is one of 1,700 to 1,800 women and children in Southeast Alaska who use WIC benefits each month, said Susan Hennon, who oversees the WIC program for the SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium. Participants include income-eligible children up to age 5, pregnant or breast-feeding women, and women who've had a miscarriage. The average WIC package includes vouchers for $56 of groceries a month, administrators said.
"These changes represent the most significant changes in WIC since its inception in the 1970s," Hennon said.
Also included in the revised food packages are whole-grain tortillas and brown rice; soy milk and tofu; and reduced-fat and fat-free milk.
"The reductions of dairy and juice follow recommendations by the American Pediatric Association and the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans," wrote Kathleen Wayne, the WIC program manager for the state, in an e-mail.
Physicians and dentists had criticized WIC's previous inclusion of fruit juices for infants as being bad for children's teeth, SEARHC's Hennon said.
"As a dietitian, it's exciting to see a federal program implement changes that will benefit Americans' health in the long run," Wayne said. "The program is not just feeding them today, but rather teaching them to form good nutrition habits for life."
Administrators in Alaska worked for more than a year to prepare for the new changes. Much of that effort went toward making sure vendors were ready with the newly included products available in their stores, Wayne said.
"The larger grocery stores already carry the products, so they just had to put WIC-approved stickers on more products," she said. "Some of the smaller vendors in the state never carried some of these products before, so they had to order them way in advance."
The changes are experimental. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is taking comments on the new food packages until Feb. 1, 2010, after which the changes will be finalized.
Submit comments online at www.regulations.gov or mail comments to: Director, Supplemental Food Programs Division, Food and Nutrition Service, USDA, 3101 Park Center Drive, Room 520, Alexandria, VA 22302.