March 03, 2022

Senators Gillibrand, Murkowski, Representatives Moore, Young Lead 112 House And Senate Colleagues In Urging USDA To Update The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program For Women, Infants, And Children (WIC) Food Packages, Ensure Access To Healthy Food For Low-Income Families

As Food Prices Rise, Families Continue To Depend on WIC To Put Food On The Table; Proposed Rule Increase Access to Healthy Food For Low-Income Women and Children

Today, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Representative Don Young (R-AK-At Large), and Representative Gwen Moore (D-WI-4) led 112 of their Senate and House colleagues in writing a bipartisan, bicameral letter urging U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack to take swift action to issue the proposed rule, Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children: Revisions in the WIC Food Packages. WIC is one of the most successful federally funded nutrition programs in the country, improving dietary and health outcomes for roughly 6 million pregnant and postpartum women, infants, and children up to age 5. The letter also urges the Secretary to ensure that the proposed rule revise the WIC food packages to align with dietary recommendations from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) by allowing beneficiaries to purchase more fruits, vegetables, and lower-mercury seafood and imposing stronger standards for whole grains, sugar content, calcium, and protein. 

“Providing healthier food options in WIC food packages has been shown to reduce childhood obesity and enhance other long-term health outcomes,” said Senator Gillibrand. “As food prices skyrocket nationwide, it is more important than ever to ensure that low-income families can afford to put nutritious food on the table. I urge Secretary Vilsack to expeditiously issue revised WIC food package guidelines in keeping with federal dietary recommendations. This ruling has been delayed for far too long and it is imperative that we give WIC participants the resources they need to maximize their WIC dollars.” 

“The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program helps low-income women to purchase healthy foods for themselves and their infants and toddlers to ensure they get off to a strong, healthy start. Nutrition scientists have been clear in their recommendations: pregnant and post-partum women and young children benefit from eating lower-mercury fish, and that WIC’s approved food packages should include more fish,” said Senator Murkowski.For several years, I have encouraged the inclusion of more healthy, nutritious fish—like Alaska’s wild salmon—in more WIC food packages. I am pleased to join Senator Gillibrand in leading a letter to Secretary Vilsack encouraging him to swiftly propose new regulations that will include more lower-mercury fish, as well as more fruits and vegetables, in the WIC program.” 

“We should give vulnerable children every resource available support to grow healthy and strong,” said Rep. Moore. “With this proposed rule change, WIC food packages would better meet the needs of mothers and their babies and give them greater access to healthy produce, such as fresh fruits and vegetables. I join Senator Gillibrand and my other colleagues in calling on the USDA to support NASEM’s recommendations and quickly implement this rule. Our mothers and babies deserve the best!”

"I am a strong advocate for the WIC program, which has a proven track record of supporting mothers in accessing healthy foods for themselves and their kids,” said Congressman Young. “The science is clear: fruits, vegetables, and seafood are healthy nutritional options that greatly benefit the health and development of children. The WIC food packages must be revised to reflect that, and I am proud to join Senators Murkowski and Gillibrand, in addition to Congresswoman Moore, on a letter to encourage the Agriculture Secretary to swiftly implement reforms that make healthier, more natural food options eligible to be purchased by WIC beneficiaries."

“The WIC benefit bump has proven to be one of the most significant investments in nutrition security, increasing access to and consumption of fruits and vegetables for more than 4.7 million WIC participants. USDA can build on this progress by revising the WIC food packages as soon as possible,” said Brian Dittmeier, Senior Director of Public Policy for the National WIC Association. “Science-based recommendations provide a blueprint for how expanded WIC food packages can invest in underconsumed food groups like fruits, vegetables, and seafood to further align participants’ diets with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. We applaud this bipartisan, bicameral effort led by Senators Gillibrand and Murkowski and Representatives Moore and Young to increase the amount of nutritious foods provided to WIC families and build a bridge to a modern WIC program that more robustly addresses the nutrient needs of participating families.”

“Families who receive WIC benefits have always appreciated the healthy foods provided in the WIC food package.  In recent months, with the temporary increase in the WIC food package for fruits and vegetables, it has become evident that WIC families need and want more nutrient-dense foods in their diets.  It is time for USDA to issue a food package rule which focuses on the increased need for fruits, vegetables, and lower mercury fish in the WIC food package as the 2017 NASEM report supports.  On behalf of the WIC Association of NYS, I would like to thank Senator Gillibrand for her commitment to WIC families and for her co-leadership in the Senate urging USDA to issue a timely food package rule,” said Lauren Brand, Chair of the WIC Association of New York State

“In Wisconsin, we have seen the impact of WIC’s nutritious food package on the health of our families. With the temporary WIC benefit bump, we have already seen children consume an additional ¼ cup of fruit and vegetables per day, which has the potential to counter increasing childhood obesity rates as a result of the pandemic,” said Camen Haessig, Chair of the Wisconsin WIC Association. “Long-term changes to WIC's food package – including added fruits and vegetables, seafood options, and other flexibilities – would allow our WIC participants more variety in their diet and a smoother shopping experience. The Wisconsin WIC Association urges USDA to advance this rulemaking and thanks Rep. Moore for her leadership.”

“On behalf of the Alaska WIC Association, I want to thank Sen. Murkowski and Rep. Young for their ongoing support of the expanded WIC food package,” said Patrick Ayres, President of the Alaska WIC Association. “Alaska’s high food costs and limited availability make food security a real issue in remote Alaska. The women, infants, and children of Alaska are amongst the most nutritionally vulnerable in society. The availability of nutritious, affordable food is critical for their physical and cognitive development. I ask for your continued support of the expanded WIC food package.”

“The Alliance to End Hunger applauds the commitment of Senators Gillibrand and Murkowski and Congressmembers Moore and Young to increasing access to nutritious foods and we join them in urging USDA to move forward with reviewing the WIC food package,” said Eric Mitchell, Executive Director of The Alliance to End Hunger. “The food package review should prioritize including a wider variety of healthy foods for WIC families – opening up access to foods that would otherwise be unattainable for many low-income individuals. Updating the food package is a necessary and common-sense next step to ensuring a healthier future for low-income families, and we look forward to working with USDA on the review.”

“The WIC program is one of our country’s most effective tools in establishing healthful eating habits,” said registered dietitian nutritionist Kevin L. Sauer, the 2021-2022 President of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “The Academy supports this bipartisan, bicameral effort to ensure the WIC food package can align with the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans and is proud to offer our support to this important initiative.”

“When the WIC food package added a fruit and vegetable benefit thirteen years ago, it was revolutionary in increasing access and improving dietary quality for families. Unfortunately, the benefit has not kept pace with costs and Dietary Guidelines’ consumption recommendations,” said Mollie Van Lieu, Vice President of Nutrition and Health at the International Fresh Produce Association. “Congress and USDA stepped up during the pandemic to triple the benefit amount, but USDA must implement a permanent solution to provide consistency to the supply chain, and most importantly, the women and children who rely on this monthly allotment. We thank Senators Gillibrand and Murkowski and Representatives Moore and Young for their leadership on this issue and ask that USDA to swiftly update the food package to align with the 2017 NASEM recommendations.”

“It’s incredibly important that WIC food packages are routinely reviewed so that WIC-enrolled families are able to obtain the critical nutrition they need to thrive. Alarmingly, WIC food packages haven’t been reviewed since 2009. Think of all that has changed in the world since then. Rising food prices, paired with lingering economic challenges brought on by COVID-19, are forcing an unprecedented number of families to rely on WIC to purchase nutritious food. Therefore, it’s of the utmost importance to ensure WIC offerings align with the current recommended dietary guidelines,” said Cassidy Pont, Manager of Child Nutrition Policy at Save the Children. “That's why we're thrilled to see bipartisan leadership elevating this crucial issue. It’s our sincere hope that the USDA takes immediate action. Kids and families need better and more regular access to nutritious foods – their livelihoods depend on it.”

Senator Gillibrand has long been an advocate for comprehensive WIC benefits. This letter follows up on her request to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack in March of 2021 to review and increase the value of the WIC food packages. Last year, Gillibrand introduced the bipartisan More Options to Develop and Enhance Remote Nutrition in WIC Act (MODERN WIC) to make WIC more accessible to low-income families and help ensure more applicants receive needed benefits by allowing them to certify and recertify for WIC services remotely. She also introduced the WIC Healthy Beginnings Act, which would promote competition and quality for infant formula manufacturers by creating an online database to centralize state solicitations. At the height of the pandemic, Senator Gillibrand successfully led a push for $6 billion in funding for WIC and fought for the inclusion of an emergency increase in the WIC Cash-Value Benefit in the American Rescue Plan, which more than doubled benefits for participating women and children.

The letter was led by Senator Gillibrand and Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) in the Senate and by Representatives Gwen Moore (D-WI-4) and Don Young (R-AK-At large) in the House. It was also signed by Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Tina Smith (D-MN), Bob Casey (D-PA), Ed Markey (D-MA), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Gary Peters (D-MI), Patty Murray (D-WA), Jacky Rosen (D-NV), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Raphael Warnock (D-GA), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Alex Padilla (D-CA), Jon Ossoff (D-GA), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Angus King (I-ME), Jack Reed (D-RI), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Ben Ray Luján (D-NM), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Representatives Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA-1), Jake Auchincloss (D-MA-4), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX-18), Jerrold Nadler (D-NY-10), Jimmy Panetta (D-CA-20), Earl Blumenauer (D-OR-3), Ed Case (D-HI-1), Kim Schrier (D-WA-8), Mark Pocan (D-WI-2), Derek Kilmer (D-WA-6), Jenniffer González-Colón (R-Puerto Rico), Salud Carbajal (D-CA-24), Marilyn Strickland (D-WA-10), Tony Cárdenas (D-CA-29), Rick Larsen (D-WA-2), Marc Veasey (D-TX-33), Nikema Williams (D-GA-5), Joseph Morelle (D-NY-25), Debbie Dingell (D-MI-12), Grace Meng (D-NY-6), Jason Crow (D-CO-6), David Cicilline (D-RI-1), J. Luis Correa (D-CA-46), Peter Welch (D-VT-At Large), Alma Adams (D-NC-12), Chellie Pingree (D-ME-1), Mark DeSaulnier (D-CA-11), Seth Moulton (D-MA-6), John Katko (R-NY-24), Mike Levin (D-CA-49), Dwight Evans (D-PA-3), Jackie Speier (D-CA-14), Jesús García (D-IL-4), Andy Kim (D-NJ-3), Ro Khanna (D-CA-17), Danny Davis (D-IL-7), Jahana Hayes (D-CT-5), Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD-2), Jimmy Gomez (D-CA-34), William Keating (D-MA-9), Chris Pappas (D-NH-1), Jan Schakowsky (D-IL-9), Bobby Rush (D-IL-1), Anna Eshoo (D-CA-18), Melanie Stansbury (D-NM-1), Yvette Clarke (D-NY-9), Ami Bera (D-CA-7), Frederica Wilson (D-FL-24), Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR-1), Alan Lowenthal (D-CA-47), Katie Porter (D-CA-45), Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-DE-At-large), Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA-40), Lucy McBath (D-GA-6), Norma Torres (D-CA-35), James McGovern (D-MA-2), Thomas Suozzi (D-NY-3), Ann Kuster (D-NH-2), Al Lawson (D-FL-5), Ruben Gallego (D-AZ-7), Conor Lamb (D-PA-17), Nanette Diaz Barragán (D-CA-44), Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ-3), John Larson (D-CT-1), Judy Chu (D-CA-27), Ann Kirkpatrick (D-AZ-2), Lauren Underwood (D-IL-14), Marie Newman (D-IL-3), Eric Swalwell (D-CA-15), Madeleine Dean (D-PA-4), Marcy Kaptur (D-OH-9), Mark Takano (D-CA-41), Jim Cooper (D-TN-5), Daniel Kildee (D-MI-5), Grace Napolitano (D-CA-32), Juan Vargas (D-CA-51), Mary Gay Scanlon (D-PA-5), Frank Pallone (D-NJ-6), Betty McCollum (D-MN-4), Sara Jacobs (D-CA-53), and Stacey Plaskett (D-Virgin Islands-At-Large).

The full text of the letter is available here or below: 

 

 Dear Secretary Vilsack:

Thank you for your ongoing work to address nutrition insecurity and improve access to nutritious foods as a means to enhance long-term health outcomes, including through the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). As one of the largest food assistance programs in the country, with the strongest nutrition standards across federal programs, WIC is a proven and effective nutrition intervention that improves dietary and health outcomes for 6.1 million pregnant and postpartum women, infants, and children up to age 5. 

To further increase WIC participants’ access to healthy foods, we urge the Department to take swift action to issue the proposed rule, Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children: Revisions in the WIC Food Packages, in order to issue revised WIC food packages that build on the recommendations by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM). We are disappointed that the proposed rule has now been delayed twice from projected publication dates in August and December 2021.

The last review of the WIC food packages occurred in 2009 and significantly shifted the available WIC foods to align with food patterns in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs). The 2009 revisions introduced fruits, vegetables, and whole grains to the WIC food packages, resulting in improved dietary quality and variety, especially for children. Healthier options provided through WIC resulted in improved health outcomes, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) measuring an overall reduction in childhood obesity among WIC-enrolled toddlers after the 2009 food package revisions.  We believe that the upcoming proposed rule, if based on the NASEM recommendations, will make additional significant improvements for our nation’s vulnerable women and children.

As required under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, the WIC food packages were reviewed by an independent expert panel of NASEM, which issued its final report in 2017. USDA took the positive step to ensure that the 2020-2025 DGAs are largely consistent with the NASEM’s recommendations. However, the NASEM panel was charged by USDA to develop cost-neutral recommendations. In their report, NASEM noted that funding constraints particularly limited their ability to recommend amounts of fruits, vegetables, and seafood at levels that would best align WIC participants’ diet patterns with the best science and the recommendations of organizations such as the World Health Organization.

We note that in recent years, the current food package regulations limited WIC beneficiaries from purchasing foods in the amounts and variety anticipated by the appropriations provided for the program. In the fiscal year 2021 omnibus legislation, for example, $1.25 billion in unspent fiscal year 2020 food funding was returned to the Treasury. 

 

For these reasons, we therefore urge USDA to promulgate a regulation that includes the issuance of benefits that will incorporate fruits, vegetables, and lower-mercury seafood at amounts above NASEM’s cost-neutral recommendations in a manner consistent with the scientific basis of NASEM’s review.

Specifically, we urge you to ensure that the new proposed rule includes: increased fruit and vegetable benefits; increased lower-mercury seafood options as a distinct food category across child and adult food packages on a monthly basis without a rotating substitution with legumes and peanut butter; additional package size options, particularly for yogurt and grains; an additional substitution pattern, including the option for parents to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables in place of jarred infant foods to promote greater choice for parents; and stronger standards for whole grains, sugar content, calcium, and protein so that WIC-approved foods support WIC families in reaching DGA-recommended diet patterns.

With food prices rising, many families are more reliant than ever on WIC and other federal nutrition programs to put healthy food on the table. More children are benefitting from WIC, with a 7.5 percent national increase in child participation since the beginning of the pandemic. The comprehensive 2017 NASEM report is a strong foundation for additional steps that USDA can take to enhance the nutritional value of WIC food packages by increasing regular access to healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, and lower-mercury fish to promote diet patterns that are even further aligned with NASEM’s recommendations and the DGAs. 

We urge USDA to act expeditiously to promulgate a proposed rule that will enhance the health of low-income women and children.  We appreciate your timely attention to our request.  

Sincerely,