Society

USDA Nutrition Program for Low-Income Women and Children Now Features Plant-Based Dairy

The Biden-Harris Administration, in collaboration with the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), has announced significant updates to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), notably including the incorporation of plant-based yogurts and cheeses.

The revisions, grounded in the latest scientific recommendations from both the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans for 2020-2025, aim to enhance nutrition security and maternal and child health while providing increased flexibility for participants.

“These improvements to our food packages have the potential to make positive, life-long impacts”

The WIC program helps ensure good health for low-income pregnant women, new mothers, breastfeeding mothers, and children up to age five by providing food packages, vouchers, and nutritional education. The program reaches a significant portion of American families with young children, with a reported 6.6 million people receiving WIC benefits each month.

Food and Nutrition Service Administrator Cindy Long commented, “For the 6.6 million moms, babies and young children who participate in WIC – and the millions more eligible to participate – these improvements to our food packages have the potential to make positive, life-long impacts on health and well-being.”

pregnant woman mixing salad
© di_media – stock.adobe.com

A draft of the revision of the WIC food packages was published in November of 2022; however, it’s taken over a year to finalize. Following effective lobbying for full financial backing for WIC for the fiscal year 2024, which included an additional allocation of $1 billion, bringing the total funding to over $7 billion, the Biden-Harris Administration has cemented its commitment to the nutritional assistance of nearly seven million pregnant women, new mothers, infants, and young children across the United States.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a press release, “WIC has a half-century track record of caring for young families. USDA and the Biden-Harris Administration are committed to ensuring that moms, babies, and young children continue to thrive through WIC. These participant-centered changes will strengthen WIC by ensuring the foods participants receive reflect the latest nutrition science to support healthy eating and the brightest futures.”

Enhancements to food package options

Significant among the updates is the expanded variety and quantity of fruits and vegetables, a move to quadruple the benefit for these essential food groups permanently. This is complemented by the inclusion of a broader range of whole grains, such as quinoa, blue cornmeal, and teff, to cater to varied dietary guidelines and individual or cultural preferences.

A notable change in the dairy category is the introduction of more flexible packaging options and the inclusion of non-dairy alternatives like plant-based yogurts and cheeses. This adjustment not only acknowledges dietary restrictions such as lactose intolerance but also represents a significant shift towards accommodating plant-based diets. 

cheese analogs made with chickpea isolate
Image courtesy of ChickP, credit Nimrod Genisher

Flexibility for WIC participants

In a statement published by the Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA), Margorie Mulhull, senior director of policy, comments, “We commend the USDA for expanding the plant-based options available for WIC participants, including plant-based yogurts and cheeses. These updates provide much-needed flexibility to WIC participants who seek out plant-based options for any number of reasons: health, environmental concerns, ethical reasons, and taste.”

As WIC state agencies prepare to implement these changes over the coming two years, stakeholders will have the opportunity to engage with key partners and ensure that the introduction of plant-based yogurts and cheeses aligns with the unique needs of participants in their respective communities.

Director of Nutrition Policy at Danone North America, Stephanie Goodwin, spoke to vegconomist on the implications of these new changes: “At Danone, we believe that nutrition should be available, accessible, and equitable. USDA’s new rule will help ensure that even more variety in health-forward products, like soy yogurt alternatives, will be available through WIC, helping to meet the cultural and personal preferences of parents and families nationwide and supporting healthier outcomes for Americans.”

Find a copy of the final revisions here.

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