WASHINGTON, D.C. – A physicians group is endorsing the majority of revisions proposed for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, commonly referred to as WIC. The USDA’s Food and Nutrition Program, which manages WIC, has recommended a greater quantity and variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and nondairy alternatives for WIC recipients. However, the agency’s proposed addition of canned fish to WIC food packages should not be adopted, according to the Physicians Committee, a nonprofit public health advocacy organization of more than 17,000 doctors.
In a letter submitted today to Food and Nutrition Policy Chief Allison Post, Physicians Committee Nutrition Educator Stephanie McBurnett, RD, says, “We share the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service goals…of increasing flexibility, value, and equitable access to nutritious foods. Improvements in these areas are vital for accommodating the preferences, dietary needs, and cultural eating patterns of a diverse range of WIC participants.” In 2020, McBurnett administered WIC benefits for families in Rhode Island.
The proposed changes would expand access and flexibility for fruits and vegetables; allow for soy-based yogurts and cheese; expand whole grain and legume options; and add canned fish to food packages. Decades of research show that a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, legumes and whole grains can help prevent, improve, and even reverse type 2 diabetes. The American Diabetes Association endorses a plant-based diet.
The Physicians Committee supports many of the proposed changes with the exception of adding canned fish to food packages. Evidence has linked fish consumption to increased risk of metabolic disease, cardiovascular disease, and heavy metal-induced harms to human development.
If history is any judge, these changes will improve the health of those who use WIC benefits. A 2017 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine looked at what happened when WIC was revised in 2009 to include foods such as whole-grain breads and cereals and fruits and vegetables. There were significant decreases in purchases of calories, sodium, and total fat, and increases in purchases of fruits and vegetables with no added sugar, fats, or salt. Childhood obesity also declined for WIC participants after these changes were made, according to a study in JAMA Pediatrics.
“USDA's WIC food packages proposed rule makes great strides toward improving maternal and child health by uplifting whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and allowing participants more flexibility to substitute plant-based options for dairy and eggs,” McBurnett says. “But we can’t let the agency off the hook when it comes to their plans to feed children more canned fish, which is both unnecessary and extremely risky due to harmful heavy metal contaminants and other health concerns.“ Comments on the proposed changes are being accepted until Feb. 21.
Founded in 1985, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is a nonprofit organization that promotes preventive medicine, conducts clinical research, and encourages higher standards for ethics and effectiveness in education and research.