March 03, 2022

Van Hollen, Gillibrand, Murkowski, Moore, Young Urge 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. Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), and Lisa Murkowski (R-Ark.) and Representatives Don Young (R-Ark.-At Large) and Gwen Moore (D-Wis.-4) sent a bipartisan, bicameral letter urging U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack 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. 

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