Changes-to-WIC-food-package-improve-access-to-healthy-food-PRC-studies-find

Changes to WIC food package improve access to healthy food, PRC studies find

Changes to the federal food assistance program for low-income women and their children improved the availability of healthy foods for them to buy at small stores in New Orleans, according to new research from the Tulane Prevention Research Center (PRC).
In late 2009, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) began to offer participants fruits, vegetables, low-fat milk and whole grain cereal, bread or rice. Prior to that, none of these foods were eligible for purchase with WIC benefits.
"The policy to change the WIC food package is the first major change in a generation and was essential to keep the program up-to-date with respect to current nutritional guidelines," said Diego Rose, lead author on the study, an investigator at the Tulane PRC and head of the nutrition concentration in the Department of Global Community Health and Behavioral Sciences at the Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine.
To gauge the impact of this policy change, researchers examined the foods sold in small stores that are authorized vendors in the WIC program, as well as small stores from a comparison group that were not in the WIC program. The findings were published this spring in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior as part of a special issue focused on the impact of the revised WIC food package. A second study from the Tulane PRC was e-published in Public Health Nutrition this spring, and it examined the effectiveness of a store assessment tool designed for the WIC program. Both papers found increased availability of the new healthy food options in stores after the WIC package changes were implemented.
For the Tulane study in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, teams of research assistants observed the availability of WIC food items and measured shelf space dedicated to certain foods, such as fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables, in 93 small stores in 2009 and 2010, before and after the changes went into effect. Of those, 27 were WIC-authorized vendors.
In 2009, only 4% of WIC small stores carried whole wheat bread and the same percent carried brown rice. This increased dramatically to 70% for whole wheat bread and to 93% for brown rice in 2010. The odds of finding an improved availability of low fat milks (2%, 1%, and nonfat) from 2009 to 2010 were five times greater in WIC stores than non-WIC stores. There were also changes in fruit and vegetable availability, but they were much less dramatic. On average, the WIC stores added about one new variety of fruit. Relative to shelf space, WIC stores saw a small increase in shelf space for vegetables, while non-WIC stores actually saw a decline.
This PRC study only reported on small stores – which are stores with less than $1 million in annual sales – because these types of stores are historically the least likely to carry healthy foods, and therefore could be the most impacted by the changes. They are also more common in low-income neighborhoods, which often lack a full-service supermarket.
The WIC program operates in roughly 50,000 authorized vendors nationwide with more than 9 million participants. The federal government changed available foods under the WIC program based on recommendations from the Institute of Medicine and concerns about the nutritional quality of WIC-approved foods to align them with current dietary recommendations. Other researchers have reported on the increased sales, home availability and consumption of these healthier food options since the WIC food package changes went into effect.
"These papers join a growing body of literature documenting the effectiveness of this federal policy change on increasing health food access for not only the millions of participants in the WIC program, but also other community residents who now have healthier food options available in their neighborhood," said Keelia O'Malley, lead author for the study in Public Health Nutrition and assistant director of the Tulane PRC.

(Photo courtesy of the Mary Amelia Women’s Center at Tulane University.)

Topics:   nutrition , diet , policy , wic , obesity , childhood obesity , food environment , community health

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