Changes to Voucher Program Aim to Improve Diets

Federal officials want to improve the diets of poor families who depend on a federal food program. Changes to WIC — the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children that serves 7 million Americans — would encourage mothers to breastfeed and to use vouchers to buy fruits and vegetables.

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Federal officials want to encourage better diets for the poor for families that depend on a federal food program. Seven million people depend on the program for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC. NPR's Rachel Jones reports on how that program is changing.

RACHEL JONES reporting:

WIC supplements the diets of nearly half the babies born in America, a fourth of preschoolers and their moms in centers like this one at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, DC.

Ms. BARBARA HANEY-KOKA(ph) (Lactation Consultant): Does a mom have to eat certain foods to make milk?

Unidentified Woman #1: No.

JONES: Lactation consultant Barbara Haney-Koka sits in a circle of four moms, three babies and one dad in a small conference room. She's leading a discussion about some of the myths around breast feeding, like the one that says eating spicy food can harm your baby.

Ms. HANEY-KOKA: Well, that's not true. You know, actually, women breast-feed all over the world, and women eat all sorts of foods all over the world. You know, there's a lot of spicy-eating cultures out there, and they breast-feed and do perfectly well, so...

JONES: Twenty-eight-year-old Lavon Butler(ph) sits next to Haney-Koka. Her 8-week-old son Lamar(ph) is a tiny blue bundle draped over her lap. Butler has been in WIC for about a month. She says the class helps support her decision to breast-feed Lamar.

Ms. LAVON BUTLER (Parent): I'm just really concerned about health and him growing and, you know, how he's going to learn, and breast-feeding also helps develop the mind. I don't want him to have a lot of sicknesses, and it also helps.

JONES: More than 5,000 women and their children receive monthly vouchers at the hospitals WIC clinic. Women can use those vouchers to buy specific amounts of items like vegetable juices and cheese, dried beans and milk, infant formula and cereal. Nationwide, some WIC offices arrange for moms to buy produce at local farmers' markets, but the way the program operates now, only breast-feeding moms can use their coupons to buy a vegetable, and the only one they can buy is carrots. Department of Agriculture officials realized the program was out of step with the latest nutritional research, so they asked an expert panel to revamp WIC, with one small catch.

Ms. SUZANNE MURPHY (University of Hawaii-Honolulu): We not only were told that it couldn't cost much more money, we were told it couldn't cost any more money.

JONES: Suzanne Murphy is a research director at the University of Hawaii-Honolulu. She led the review of WIC done by the Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academy of Sciences. Murphy says her committee's recommendations had to stay within WIC's current $3 billion budget. That meant researchers had to make changes without cutting calories for women and children. Murphy says the best way to do that would be to introduce more fruits and vegetables.

Ms. MURPHY: By adding a cash coupon for about $10 of fruits and vegetables every month to the packages for the women and about $8 for the children, we think we can increase fruit and vegetable consumption considerably.

JONES: There would be less high-cholesterol eggs and fatty cheese in the new WIC vouchers. Moms could choose whole grain breads, cereals and canned beans, and breast-feeding moms could also buy processed fruit, vegetable and meat baby foods for babies older than six months. There's already reason to believe that it could lead to healthier diets for WIC mothers and children.

Ms. HANEY-KOKA: So I think that's it. I...

JONES: Just after her breast-feeding class at Children's National Medical Center ends, Lavon Butler says WIC has already changed the way she eats.

Ms. BUTLER: Carrots and beans--that's something that I would go to the store and say, `Hey, you know, I would rather go to McDonald's,' but being in the program, it actually does help me to buy the things that I really need.

JONES: That's the kind of attitude WIC wants to see more of among women who not only nurture, but influence eating behaviors of half of America's children.

Rachel Jones, NPR News, Washington.

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