WIC Enhancements Improve Maternal and Infant Health

If you’ve never heard of WIC, it’s a Federally funded program designed to improve lifelong health and nutrition behavior for a specific population of U.S. citizens. WIC is an acronym for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children.

That’s the population the WIC program was created to serve: pregnant women, mothers with children under the age of five, and children under the age of five. WIC began as a pilot program in 1972 and opened its first site in Kentucky in 1974. By the end of 1974, WIC opened sites in 45 states, and by the end of 1975, it became a permanent Federal program. WIC is funded by federal tax dollars and administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

To meet the eligibility requirements for participation in the WIC program, applicants must:

  1. Have income at or below 185% of the poverty level established by the U.S. Poverty Income Guidelines. The guidelines for 2019 establishes a maximum income of $23,107 for a mother with one child. With each additional child, the maximum eligible income increases by $4,420. Individuals enrolled in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or Medicaid are also eligible.
  2. Receive a screening from a health professional to check for:
    1. Risks such as anemia, over- or under-weight, smoking, past pregnancy complications or previous poor pregnancy outcomes.
    2. Diet risks such as insufficient basic nutrition, especially a lack of protein or iron in daily food intake.

For a comprehensive discussion of the origin of WIC, program goals, and granular details about eligibility requirements, program components, the application process, and more, have a look at the USDA’s WIC Information Page.

WIC: A Successful Program

Since its inception in 1972, scores of studies – both publicly and privately funded – have demonstrated the effectiveness of the WIC program.

Evidence shows that in addition to improving overall diet quality in enrolled individuals, WIC helps reduce:

  • Premature births
  • Low birth weight
  • Fetal and infant mortality
  • Incidence of anemia due to insufficient dietary iron

WIC also helps increase:

  • Earlier access to prenatal care
  • Consumption of important nutrients such as iron, protein, calcium, and vitamins A and C
  • Immunization rates
  • Access to regular health care

Each addition or supplement to the WIC program has resulted in benefits for women and children living at or below poverty level. The most recent enhancement to WIC, implemented in 2009, included a revised food package. Here’s what changed:

  • The value of Cash Value Vouchers (CVVs) for pregnant, postpartum, and breastfeeding women for the purchase of fruit and vegetables increased from $8.00 to $10.00/month.
  • Funding for fresh fruit replaced the allocation of funding for fruit juice only.
  • Revisions required the purchase of whole-grain bread and low-fat milk.

The basic idea behind the revisions was to get pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, as well as children under five, to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables, replace whole milk with low-fat milk, and encourage the consumption of whole grains.

The Results: Improved Health for Women and Children

In order to determine the effectiveness of these revisions to WIC, a group of researchers from the University of California conducted a study on over three million children born to close to two and a half million mothers.

Here’s what they found. For the mothers, the WIC revisions were associated with:

  • Reduced instances of preeclampsia, a potentially dangerous condition in pregnancy involving high blood pressure and fluid retention.
  • Appropriate gestational weight gain – meaning the pregnant women gained a healthy amount of weight during their pregnancy
  • Longer gestational age – meaning fewer babies were born to these mothers prematurely

For the infants, WIC revisions were associated with:

  • Longer gestational age (see bullet above)
  • Appropriate birth weight
  • Appropriate birth size

In an interview in this article, lead author Dr. Rita Hamad points out the importance of the results of the study:

“This shows that there are social policy levers that can affect millions of people at once. We saw these improvements in high-risk moms and babies, even with these relatively modest improvements in the nutritional content of WIC food packages.”

For some perspective, let’s back up and make sure we all understand what she means by “modest improvements”: the CVV increase was from $8.00 to $10.00 per month for each individual, meaning a mother of two would receive and additional $30.00 per month to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables. That comes out to around $7.50 per week, which is a modest increase by our standards.

Improve Nutrition, Improve Health, Improve Life

There’s a takeaway from this study that has nothing to do with government programs: it’s the simple conclusion that adding fruits and vegetables to the diet of pregnant and breastfeeding mothers leads to good outcomes. The same is true for infants and children under five. There’s room for robust debate about the role of the federal government in assisting families below the poverty level. However, that debate is for another time and place. We support anything that helps families live healthier lives – and both this program and study affirm something we’d like every family to know: more fresh fruits and vegetable and more whole grains – even a modest increase – can have positive impacts on overall health and wellness.