WIC Changes May Improve Preschooler Diets, but More Progress Can Be Made

WIC Changes

A recent study looking at the impacts of a 2009 shift in the Woman, Infants, and Children (WIC) supplemental nutrition program to allow more fruit, vegetables, whole grain, and low-fat milk is due to be published in the journal Pediatrics next month.

This study, conducted by a combination of researchers at the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in Oakland, the UC Agricultural and National Resource’s Nutrition Policy Institute, and UC San Francisco, takes one of the first looks at how this policy change has affected the roughly 4 million children currently under the WIC program.

The WIC Study, In Summary

  • A total of 1197 children ranging from ages 2-4 from low-income households were examined both before and after the 2009 policy change.
  • This examination was performed using results from the 2003-2008 and 2011-2012 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.
  • Using two 24-hour diet recalls, the Healthy Eating Index-2010 (HEI-2010) value was calculated for the children (HEI is on a 1-100 scale, with 100 being the most in line with dietary guidelines).
  • Some statistical analysis was used to try and determine how much the WIC change contributed to the observed changes in HEI-2010 scores.
  • The WIC children had an average HEI score of 52.4 before the 2009 change and 58.3 afterwards. For comparison, non-WIC children had before and after scores of 50.0 and 52.4 respectively.
  • Of this increase, 3.7 of the points was attributed to the WIC adjustments
  • The amount of “greens and beans” eaten by WIC children showed the greatest increase compared to fruits, grains, or low-fat milk. Specifically, about half of WIC children were noted to be eating at least some vegetables after the change, compared to only 20% of non-WIC children.
  • The shift from whole milk to low-fat milk did not result in a decrease in milk consumption, but not much of an increase, either.

What This Means

Given that one in five children within the U.S. are overweight by the time they enter elementary school, there is an obvious need to establish good eating habits early in life. Low income families face greater challenges in finding healthy options to incorporate into their children’s’ diets and one of the goals of the WIC program is to make sure the option remains available to such individuals.

Although the standard caveats about dietary studies that rely on self reporting (or in this case, parental reporting) apply—especially ones only using two 24-hour recalls—the use of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey helps the findings. It shows a distinct, but modest, improvement in the dietary quality of low-income preschoolers that hopefully is able to translate into improved health outcomes and better weight by the time they enter elementary school.

Since the WIC program is in a continual state of refinement and improvement, studies like this are useful to help policymakers understand the impacts, or lack thereof, that changes have on American diets.

Tester, J. M., et al., “Revised WIC Food Package and Children’s Diet Quality,” Pediatrics, 2016; http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2016/04/05/peds.2015-3557?sso=1&sso_redirect_count=1&nfstatus=401&nftoken=00000000-0000-0000-0000-000000000000&nfstatusdescription=ERROR%3a+No+local+token, last accessed April 8, 2016.
Kan-Rice, P., “WIC food improves preschool children’s diet quality, study finds,” University of California web site, April 7, 2016; http://universityofcalifornia.edu/news/wic-food-improves-preschool-childrens-diet-quality-study-finds, last accessed April 8, 2016.