A recent study authored by Dr. Tatiana Andreyeva of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut examined the effects of revisions to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), which were enacted in 2009. Andreyeva’s study, which compared point of sale data from participants and nonparticipants at a regional supermarket chain in the northeastern United States, showed an increase in healthy food purchasing as well as a decrease in unhealthy purchases by program participants following the 2009 revisions. Nonparticipants did not display similar improvements in the healthfulness of their grocery purchases.
WIC is a program used by 8 million Americans, including 51% of infants born in the US. According to the USDA’s website, WIC provides “[f]ederal grants to States for supplemental foods, health care referrals, and nutrition education for low-income pregnant, breastfeeding, and non-breastfeeding postpartum women, and to infants and children up to age five who are found to be at nutritional risk”. To qualify for participation, a family’s income must be at 185% or lower of the federal poverty line in most states. Unlike the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), WIC participants are somewhat limited in the foods that they are permitted to purchase with their benefits. Traditionally, approved foods have included items such as cereals, some fruits and vegetables, eggs, milk, cheese, peanut butter, beans, and fish. As of 2009, revisions were made to the approved list of foods to incorporate the 2005 dietary guidelines for American recommended by the Institute of Medicine. The goal of this revision was to promote consumption of fruits, vegetables and whole grains while decreasing consumption of saturated fat, sugar and cholesterol.
The Rudd Center study provides evidence that incentivizing participants in government funded supplemental nutrition programs to buy healthier foods can improve health outcomes for low income populations. If improved public health for low-income communities is truly on the agenda, legislators should take note of these benefits and evaluate the application of nutrition-related restrictions to the much larger population using SNAP benefits for food purchasing.