AUGUSTA, Maine — Thousands of young children from low-income families, along with expectant mothers in Maine who participate in a federal food assistance program, soon will have new, more healthful menus.
On Oct. 1, the list of foods offered through the federal Women, Infant and Children Nutrition Program, commonly known as WIC, received a long-awaited update to reflect the latest dietary recommendations.
WIC participants still will be able to receive eggs, milk, cheese and other dietary mainstays of the program. But the menu of eligible items through the WIC program has been expanded significantly to include the fruits, vegetables and whole grains that nutritionists say are crucial to maintaining a healthful diet.
The changes are intended to address the nation’s growing epidemic of obesity and diabetes in children. They also reflect changes in the dietary needs of children and mothers since the 1970s, when hunger and anemia were greater problems than today.
In addition to whole wheat bread, WIC participants will be able to purchase fresh produce, canned fruits, vegetables and beans, as well as other items such as tortillas, tofu and soy products.
Additionally, women who are breast-feeding can receive canned fish under the revised dietary guidelines.
The program will continue to offer nutrition education and support services to new or expectant mothers, as well as referrals for health and social services programs.
Karen Gallagher, the nutrition coordinator for Maine’s WIC program, said the nutritional advice offered to mothers and families with young children has changed significantly in recent decades but WIC’s menu stayed the same until now.
“I think these are great changes,” said Gallagher, who works within the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, which administers the federal program. “We are really excited about them.”
Established in the early 1970s, the WIC program aims to improve the overall health and development of infants and children from low-income families while improving the nutritional health of pregnant mothers.
Assistance is available for eligible pregnant, postpartum or breast-feeding women as well as infants and children up to age 5 who live in lower-income families. Most states, including Maine, administer the program by offering participants WIC checks that are redeemable for eligible foods at stores.
To be eligible, applicants’ income must be at or below 185 percent of the U.S. Poverty Income Guidelines. That translates into $26,955 annually for a family of two or $40,793 for a family of four.
The program served 8.7 million people each month nationwide in fiscal year 2008; roughly three-quarters of the assistance went to children or infants. In Maine, 26,800 individuals received WIC assistance in August 2009.
“Our enrollment has been going up with the state of the economy,” Gallagher said. “We have been increasing almost every single month for at least two years.”
The recent changes were in response to a 2005 study by the Institute of Medicine titled “WIC Food Packages: Time for a Change.” The USDA, which commissioned the study, adopted most of the recommended changes.
“The proposed changes to the WIC food packages hold potential for improving the nutrition and health of the nation’s low-income pregnant women, new mothers, infants, and young children,” reads the 2005 study. “The new packages are well-aligned with current nutrient and food intake recommendations, and they allow considerable flexibility in food selection.”
For more information, go to www.maine.gov/dhhs/wic/index.htm.