Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Program
Supporting healthy weight and nutrition from pregnancy through the first five years
The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) is one of the nation’s largest federal nutrition programs, serving approximately 6.3 million people, including about half of all infants born in the United States. WIC helps qualifying pregnant, postpartum, and breastfeeding women, infants, and children up to age 5 achieve and maintain a healthy weight by providing healthy foods and nutrition education; promoting breastfeeding and supporting nursing mothers; and providing health care and social-service referrals.
The WIC food package is required by law to be periodically re-evaluated to ensure it aligns with the latest U.S. Dietary Guidelines. In 2009, the WIC food package was updated to include more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lower-fat milk. Research shows that, following the changes, WIC participants are buying and eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products. Research has also shown that WIC participation is associated with healthier consumption patterns among mothers and children, and with higher fruit, vegetable, and whole grain consumption among children. Newer data has also shown that children who participate in WIC through age 4 have healthier diets than children who leave earlier.
The most recent data available show that the obesity rates among children ages 2 to 4 who participate in WIC declined from 15.9 percent in 2010 to 13.9 in 2016. The decline was statistically significant among racial and ethnic groups studied, and in 41 states or U.S. territories. CDC researchers cite the updates to the food package as one factor that may have contributed to the decline.
The Families First Coronavirus Response Act provides $500 million in additional funding for WIC to improve access to nutritious foods among participating pregnant women or mothers with young children who lose their jobs or are laid off due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, states are able to waive some of the requirements that are typically part of WIC, such as the requirement to apply in person and waive some of the minimum stocking requirements for participating providers. These waivers were originally scheduled to expire on September 30, but USDA has extended them through the national public health emergency. This will allow offices to approve new participants remotely, and provide flexibility in some of the food package requirements.
Although national data on WIC enrollment during the pandemic are not yet available, prior research on the impact of unemployment and rising food insecurity suggests that WIC enrollment will increase in 2020.
In response to the pandemic:
• USDA and Congress should ensure that the relevant waivers remain in place for as long as needed and that states and WIC offices have the technical support they need to continue to serve families.
• Congress should increase WIC funding to extend eligibility to postpartum mothers through the first two years after the birth of a baby, and to children through the age of 6 to align with participation in school meal programs, and should enable infants and children to participate for two years before having to reapply.
• Policymakers should work to increase racial equity in WIC participation, including making WIC packages more culturally inclusive, providing targeted support based on health disparities, and providing breastfeeding support that is inclusive and relevant for women of color who participate in WIC.
• Congress should fund the WIC Breastfeeding Peer Counseling Program at its full authorized amount of $90 million to ensure mothers have access to critical supports.
• Congress should continue to support and fund efforts to streamline and modernize WIC services through technology, including achieving the congressional mandate for all states to achieve WIC Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) by 2020.
• USDA is required by Congress to update the WIC food package every 10 years. As it does so, USDA should ensure that the process is grounded in the latest, most sound nutritional science.
• The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services should continue to support and reimburse WIC for its role in lead screening.
Obesity Rates Decline Among WIC Participants
Between 2010 and 2016, the obesity rate among children ages 2 to 4 who participate in WIC declined significantly in 41 states and territories, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The national rate of obesity among this group also dropped, from 15.9% in 2010 to 13.9% in 2016. The decline was statistically significant among all racial and ethnic groups studied: white, black, Hispanic, American Indian/Alaska Native, and Asian/Pacific Islander.
WIC Food Package
In 2009, based on the Institute of Medicine’s recommendations, USDA updated the WIC food package to include more fruits, vegetables,whole grains, and lower-fat milk, with the goal of improving children’s health and nutrition. A study conducted by Healthy Eating Research, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, found significant decreases in purchases of calories, sodium, fat, sugar, refined grains, grain-based desserts, high-fat milk, and sugary drinks among low-income families with preschool-age children following these updates. It also found increases in fruits and vegetables purchases, concluding that the updated WIC food package may encourage participating families to make healthier choices.
Featured Studies and Resources
WIC Food Vouchers
Healthy Eating Research evaluated the impact of the 2009 WIC food package changes on corner stores, convenience stores, and bodegas in two lower-income North Philadelphia neighborhoods. The evaluation found that the changes prompted those stores to begin carrying fruits, vegetables, whole-grain products, and other healthy foods, which also prompted non-WIC participating stores in the area to carry healthier foods.
Updated Nutrition Recommendations
In 2017, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine issued nutrition recommendations for the WIC food package, which include providing more fish; increasing whole grains, fruits, and vegetables; and reducing sodium and saturated fat. The recommendations are expected to “improve both the attractiveness of the program to participants and its success in meeting the WIC program’s goals.”
Obesity Declines Among WIC Participants Ages 2 to 4
The new data show that overall obesity rates among children participating in WIC declined from 15.9 percent in 2010 to 13.9 percent in 2016, with statistically significant decreases among all racial and ethnic subgroups.
41 states U.S. territories reported obesity rate declines among 2-to-4 year olds participating in WIC between 2010 and 2016.
Percentage of overweight and obesity among children enrolled in WIC, a decrease from 32.5 percent in 2010.
Number of infants and children who received WIC benefits in 2018.