WASHINGTON — Proposals to broaden the range of flour-based foods included in a major food assistance program largely were rejected by the Food and Nutrition Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. At the same time, the inclusion of whole grain products in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), first allowed only six years ago, was reaffirmed in the final rule.
The changes to the WIC program were set to be published March 4 in the Federal Register. The final rule marks the end of the first comprehensive revisions to the WIC package since 1980. The interim revisions, issued in December 2007, added whole grain cereals and bread, baby foods and fruits and vegetables. The additions were offset in the interim guidelines by reductions in milk, juice and eggs.
While the F.N.S. received many suggested changes to the interim proposals for whole grains, nearly all the suggestions were turned down.
For instance, the F.N.S. said a number of commenters asked for more baked foods than bread alone to be included such as whole grain English muffins or bagels, so long as they meet the whole grain requirements for bread.
The change would be “complex given the number of products in the marketplace,” the F.N.S. said in explaining why it did not adopt the requested change.
Another proposal the F.N.S. did not accept was to increase the package sizes of WIC-eligible whole wheat/whole grain bread allowed to the 20-oz package most popular in the baking industry. The interim proposal capped the package size at 2 lbs (16 oz). Ultimately the request fell victim to the baking industry’s willingness in recent years to introduce smaller sized packages.
“Although the availability of bread in package sizes to meet the WIC maximum monthly amount of bread authorized in WIC food packages was of initial concern as state agencies planned to implement the new food packages and supply in the marketplace may have been limited, bread manufacturers have increasingly produced WIC-eligible breads in 16-oz package sizes to respond to the changes in the WIC Program,” the F.N.S. said. “As such, all state agencies have breads in appropriate size packages on their WIC food lists. A greater number of WIC-eligible breads in 16-oz package sizes continue to be introduced by manufacturers, which will further increase the bread options available to participants. Therefore, F.N.S. believes that this situation has been addressed and the maximum allowance for whole wheat and whole grain bread is unchanged in this final rule.”
Other whole grain options besides bread were allowed for WIC in the interim rule from 2007, including brown rice, bulgur, oats and whole grain barley, as well as tortillas. The F.N.S. said it received 310 comments looking for an expanded list of alternative whole grain products, including the requests for whole wheat English muffins and bagels. Whole wheat pasta was requested as well, and the F.N.S. added this product to the final list of alternatives to whole wheat/whole grain bread. Qualifying WIC-eligible pasta includes whole wheat macaroni or other pasta shapes meeting the Food and Drug Administration standard of identity with no added sugar, fat, oil or salt. The rule did not specify whether pasta made with a blend of whole wheat and enriched semolina would qualify. Because of its lower moisture content, pasta could be made with a significant proportion of enriched semolina and still achieve the whole wheat requirement of at least 50% whole grains by weight.
“The updates to the WIC food package make pivotal improvements to the program and better meet the diverse nutritional needs of mothers and their young children,” said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. “The foods provided by the WIC program, along with education that focuses on the critical role of breastfeeding and proper nutrition, help to ensure that every American child has the opportunity to grow up healthy and strong.”
The changes were made to align WIC eligible foods more closely with “updated nutrition science, recommendations of the National Academies’ Institute of Medicine and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the Federal government’s benchmark for healthy eating and nutrition,” the F.N.S. said.
WIC provides more than 8.5 million low-income pregnant, breastfeeding, and postpartum women, infants, and children up to age five with nutritious, supplemental foods. The program also provides nutrition and breastfeeding education and referrals to health and social services.
“Recent research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified changes to the WIC food packages as a contributing factor in the decline in obesity rates among low-income preschoolers in many states,” the F.N.S. said.