The federal government is on a mission to help Americans eat smarter. On Friday, it announced revisions to two programs that it hopes will help people who want to make healthy food choices.
Federal WIC Program Updated: More Fresh Produce
The first concerns guidelines for the Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) that is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and provides funding for food for low income mothers, children and infants. On Friday, the USDA released final changes to the program that it says will help improve nutritional options for enrollees by increasing their buying power of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains and dairy products.
According to 2012 statistics, more than 9 million pregnant women, new mothers, children and babies look to the WIC program for supplemental funding for food. Children under five make up the majority of enrollees (76 percent), and 53 of all infants born in the U.S. receive WIC funding.
Recipients will receive one-third more money for fruit and vegetable purchases for children so parents can ensure that kids get their daily servings of fruits and vegetables. The new guidelines will also provide more flexibility in the kinds of protein sources that parents can choose, such as yogurt and tofu. New parents will be able to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables with their check instead of pre-made baby food if they wish. States will also have more leeway to adjust the food program to meet cultural traditions and needs. Equally important, the program now allows for split tender payments, meaning enrollees will now be able to supplement their allowed food purchases with personal cash if necessary.
According to the USDA, the changes are the result of feedback that the government received concerning interim changes that were made to the program’s guidelines in 2007.
Nix the White Potatoes
Still, not everyone is happy about the changes. The National Potato Council released a statement of concern on Friday, after hearing that white potatoes were being taken off the list of vegetables permitted by WIC. According to the USDA, the change was made because of “data indicating that consumption of starchy vegetables (by Americans) meets or exceeds recommended amounts, and food intake data showing that white potatoes are the most widely used vegetable. Including white potatoes in the WIC food packages would not contribute towards meeting the nutritional needs of the WIC population and would not support the goal of expanding the types and varieties of fruits and vegetables available to program participants.”
But the NPC contends that the USDA’s decision to ban fresh white potatoes was based on old data. It says that the report conducted by the Institute of Medicine on which the USDA based its decision included data on American eating habits from the 1990s and should have contained more recent findings.
“[Much] has changed over the past two decades, and the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) consumption data from its National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHA NES) demonstrate that today’s women and children are falling well short of their consumption targets for starchy vegetables,” the NPC said.
Some of the respondents who participated in a survey of WIC enrollees also said that it would be difficult to purchase enough food with their checks if they weren’t permitted to buy potatoes. The USDA acknowledged that it had received more than 200 letters (some of which were form letters) from enrollees saying that potatoes were a vital part of their families’ diet and relied upon their inclusion for nutrition.
New Easier-to-Read Nutrient Labels Coming
The Obama Administration also announced Friday that changes were being considered for food labels to make it easier for consumers to make healthier decisions concerning the foods they eat.
According to the Food and Drug Administration, which is overseeing the changes, the proposed labels would make certain parts of the label larger, like the number of calories in the product. The visual breakdown of nutrients would also be reversed so consumers can see the percentage of fat and other nutrients first, and make appropriate decisions about what and how much they are eating. The size of portions would be standardized for some products, such as juices or other drinks, based on how much most people normally consume in a sitting. And, in keeping with the increased focus on sugars and sugary drinks these days, the new labels would also include a new line showing if and how much sugar was added in the processing of the product.
Public Comments Welcome
The FDA has stressed that changes have not been finalized yet and are urging the public to submit feedback so the agency can make final decisions about what changes to include or tweak. Public comments can be made on the FDA’s website, and will be accepted for 90 days, until Friday, May 30.
By Jan Lee