The U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed a rule in early August that would include fresh fruits and vegetables in the federal Women, Infants and Children nutrition program for the first time in the program's 32-year history.
WIC, designed to supply nutritious food to low-income pregnant and postpartum women and children under age 5, currently provides monthly vouchers for milk, eggs, cereal and juice. In order to better align the WIC food packages with the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the USDA is proposing revisions to what can be included in the WIC packages. The proposed rule is open for comment through Nov. 6.
If the proposed rule is instated, the 8 million people who receive WIC benefits each month would have increased access to a variety of nutritious foods. But the addition of fresh fruits and vegetables could make the WIC voucher exchange process more complicated for retailers.
"The WIC program basically supplies vouchers for one product—one can of applesauce, [for example]—that a client will redeem at a store. The store then bills the government," said Frank McCarthy, vice president of marketing for Albert's Organics, the nation's largest distributor of organic produce. "Part of the reason [WIC] has taken so long to include produce is that it is a lot easier to bill back a can of pears than a pear itself. Produce tends to come in uneven sizes, grades, weights and prices and it is a bit of a challenge to standardize it for this kind of program."
To answer that challenge, the USDA is considering the use of cash-value vouchers for fresh fruits and vegetables, in addition to the traditional one-voucher, one-product system for other items.
To stay within the program's budget, however, vouchers for other items will have to be reduced to make room for fresh fruits and vegetables. The International Dairy Foods Association and the National Milk Producers Federation have both expressed apprehension about cuts in funding for milk vouchers.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 9/p. 12