Early nutrition is critical to healthy development in infants and children, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) provides much-needed support in this area to low-income families.
A recent study from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) investigated utilization of the WIC program at early levels, and where improvements may be needed.1
Joanne F. Guthrie, MPH, lead author of the report and senior research nutritionist in the Food Assistance Research Branch of the Food Economics Division of the Economic Research Service at the US Department of Agriculture, says WIC offers a host of programs to parents and their young children to support a healthy diet.
“For infants, [WIC provides] nutritional support for breastfeeding mothers or iron-fortified formula. At age 6 months, infants also receive iron-rich infant cereals, and infant fruits and vegetables. Infants of breastfeeding mothers also receive infant meats, important iron sources,” Guthrie explains. “At ages 1 to 4 years, children receive a package of healthful foods and a cash value voucher that their parents can use to purchase fruits and vegetables for them. At all ages, WIC also provides nutrition education to parents. This combination of immediate food support and nutrition education is intended to provide immediate benefit and also improve eating habits long term,” she says.
Good news and not-so-good news
The study highlighted some benefits of the program as well as some ongoing concerns.
“Our findings indicate several ways that WIC is benefitting low-income infants and young children. Among infants, WIC participation is associated with older infants (6 to 12 months) being more likely to eat iron-rich infant cereals and vegetables (including baby food vegetables) than low-income non-WIC infants,” Guthrie says. “However, encouraging breastfeeding, especially its continuation through the first year of life, remains a concern.”
As children age, Guthrie says preschoolers using the WIC program are more likely to drink lowfat milk than other children, yet don’t eat enough servings of fruits and vegetables, despite being provided vouchers for them.
“Also, like other children not participating in WIC, as they got older more of them were consuming sweets and sweetened beverages,” Guthrie adds. “This indicates these are general problems for children’s nutrition, both for those on WIC and those not on WIC.”
Pediatricians can help address these issues outside the efforts of WIC staff by providing educational support and pointing parents to other community resources.
“If pediatricians see children who are low-income but not on WIC, they can refer them to the program,” Guthrie says.
Help find families who are eligible
The WIC program is available to households with total incomes at or below 185% of the US poverty income guidelines, which are updated annually, according to Guthrie. She says eligibility also may be established by participation in some other federal programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.
“Pediatricians who want to be able to refer patients they think may benefit from WIC may want to contact their state WIC agency to get specific information on how and where to apply in their state,” she suggests.
Whereas all WIC programs provide only foods that meet USDA nutritional standards, lists of particular foods vary by state, and pediatricians may want to get access to these lists to better tailor their education and guidance to their particular patient populations, Guthrie adds.
In terms of challenges with breastfeeding, although the USDA supports breastfeeding as a priority, WIC also supports mothers in other ways, such as lactation counseling, access to breast pumps, and educational materials.
Still, researchers found room for improvement here. The study found that WIC infants were less likely to breastfeed than infants in higher income, non-WIC households—with 45% of infants in WIC households being breastfed compared with 74% of infants in higher income households.
Guthrie says she hopes the new report will help provide clinicians with information to guide their interactions with parents of young infants and children and allow them to provide better nutritional support and education, particularly when it comes to the availability of nutrition resources such as WIC.
1. Guthrie JF, Catellier DJ. Jacquier EF, et al. WIC and non-WIC infants and children differ in usage of some WIC-provided foods. J Nutr. 2018;148(suppl 3):1547S-1556S.