USDA program keeps extra COVID-era money for fruits and vegetables

U.S. agriculture officials on Thursday proposed changes to the federal program that helps pay the grocery bills of low-income pregnant women, babies and young children, including extending an increase in payments for fruits and vegetables authorized fees during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The update also adds more whole grains, canned fish and non-dairy options to their shopping carts. The effort aims to increase the number and type of healthy foods available to families who receive assistance from the Department of Agriculture program known as WIC, officials said.

“These proposals will support healthier lifestyles and brighter futures for millions of children,” said Stacy Dean, deputy assistant secretary for food, nutrition and consumer services.

The revisions would make permanent payments authorized by Congress during the COVID-19 pandemic that increased fruit and vegetable vouchers to $25 per month for children ages 1 to 5 and $49 per month for women who are breastfeeding.

“This increase in fruits and vegetables has really made it attractive for families to have their children in the program longer,” said Geraldine Henchy, director of nutrition policy at the nonprofit Food Research & Action Center, who applauded changes. “Kids really like fruit.”

At the same time, the plan would reduce the amounts of certain foods, for example by reducing or eliminating the juices allowed for certain recipients. It also reduces the amount of milk and cheese covered by the scheme, a move that drew immediate criticism from the dairy industry.

“It is unfortunate for WIC participants that the proposed rule reduces access to dairy products and the unique nutrient profile they provide,” the International Dairy Foods Association and the National Federation of Dairy Producers said in a statement. communicated.

More than 6.2 million pregnant women, mothers, babies and young children participate in the program each year. The federal government currently pays about $5 billion a year to run the program, which is administered by states and other jurisdictions. The Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children provides vouchers to eligible mothers and children and specifically lists the amount and types of foods they can purchase.

The proposed changes to the WIC would also expand access to whole grains, encompassing foods from different cultures, including quinoa, blue cornmeal and teff, an ancient cereal grass from East Africa. The plan also allows for more non-dairy options, including soy-based yogurts and cheeses, and requires the inclusion of lactose-free milk.

“It reflects the fact that different people have different abilities to tolerate different types of food,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsak said.

More canned fish, such as tuna, would be available as well as easy-to-prepare canned beans, in addition to dried beans, officials said. The plan would also change the amount of infant formula provided to partially breastfed babies.

Raising the fruit and vegetable voucher to $25 a month during the pandemic has allowed Elizabeth Loya, 28, of Los Angeles, to encourage her 4-year-old daughter, Gisselle, to try new foods.

“She tried Brussels sprouts and two weeks ago she tried asparagus,” Loya said. “She liked them.”

The proposed changes are based on a 2017 report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine and the National Dietary Guidelines for Americans. They will be evaluated after a three-month public comment period. ___

This story has been edited to correct Geraldine Henchy’s title. She is the director of nutrition policy for the Food Research & Action Center, not the director of the center.

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Ryan H. Bowman