WASHINGTON – A government nutrition program for low-income women and young children lags behind current dietary standards, according to a report Wednesday that suggests ways to revamp the 30-year-old food plans.
Encouraging program participants to breast feed, eat more whole grains, fruits and vegetables and cut down on some dairy products are among recommendations made in a federally funded study by the Institute of Medicine (search).
The proposals would mark the most dramatic changes made to the kinds of foods offered through WIC -- the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (search) -- which serves some 8 million people per month, including about half of all infants in the United States.
WIC offers pregnant women, new mothers and their young children vouchers to buy certain foods tailored to their ages, breast-feeding habits or dietary needs.
But the nutrition plans have hardly changed since their 1970s debut, creating a gulf between the foods provided for in the vouchers and what the government now recommends Americans eat.
For example, the only fresh produce available through the program are carrots for breast-feeding moms. Participants can buy plenty of juice, though nutritionists now favor fresh fruit instead.
"If you look at the nutrient profiles of the current packages, they don't meet the dietary guidelines we promote today," said Suzanne Murphy, nutrition professor at the University of Hawaii, who chaired the review committee.
The panel suggested cutting by more than half the monthly juice allowances and instead provide $8-$10 vouchers to buy fresh produce.
For children, the monthly allowance of eggs would be cut by about half to one dozen, and milk vouchers would cover 2.1 cups a day, instead of 3.2 cups. Cheese would go from a monthly maximum of 4 pounds under most plans, to no more than 1 pound.
The recommendations also take into account new cultures and tastes by expanding the selection of produce and whole grains and allowing participants to buy yogurt, tofu or soy instead of milk.
"We said if you don't like bread, you can have brown rice, you can have tortillas," Murphy said.
Under a bill signed by President Bush last year, the Agriculture Department (search) has 18 months from the release of the institute's report to update WIC's food packages.
The committee had to keep its revised food plans in line with the average $35 monthly cost for each participant. Murphy said they did that in part by cutting dairy products high in cholesterol and fat and by discouraging the use of baby formula by making food plans for breast-feeding mothers more attractive.