Panel says US should help poor new moms buy more fish and produce

Heidi de Marco/Kaiser Health News

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Low-income mothers of infants and small children who receive federal nutrition aid should be given more vouchers to buy fish, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, an independent panel recommended Thursday. It also called for expanding the cultural variety of foods in the program and for giving new mothers access to more produce.

A National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine committee suggested the changes to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, also called WIC. Congress requires the National Academies to evaluate the program every 1o years.

While suggesting more fish, whole grains and produce, the panel suggested decreasing the amount of vouchers for juice, milk, peanut butter and certain canned baby foods. The committee also suggested changes that would "support the cultural food preferences" of certain WIC participants. 

"Many cultures don’t want to eat American breakfast cereal for breakfast," said UC Irvine's Dr. Tamara Hatfield, a member of the expert panel. "So we’ve added different kinds of whole grains to the package—things like buckwheat and masa."

Dr. Tamera Hatfield is a Maternal Fetal Medicine Specialist on faculty at the University of California Irvine. Her practice is at UC Irvine Medical Cente

The recommendations also include an increase in the cash value of produce vouchers for women who are breast-feeding, because they need more calories while doing so. This wouldn't increase the overall cost of the program, said the panel, because fruits and vegetables are less expensive than formula. In fact, the report estimates that the proposals would save approximately $220 million between 2018 and 2022.

WIC has been offering packages to breast-feeding moms since 1992, but this is the first time the committee is recommending a separate dietary package specifically for women who are breast-feeding some of the time.

"We anticipate more women to choose the partial breast-feeding package," said Hatfield, who is an OB-GYN at the UC Irvine Medical Center and a maternal fetal medicine specialist on the UCI faculty.

"And both of the breast-feeding packages are less expensive than the formula package," she said. "So if we can provide that support to women to encourage more breast-feeding, we anticipate that that will help reduce the overall costs."

WIC also serves low-income pregnant women. In 2015, the program served approximately 8 million women, infants, and children—which included more than half of all infants in the U.S., according to the National Academies.