June 3, 2014
Yesterday, June 2, 2014, WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) cash value vouchers (CVVs) for fruits and vegetables for children increased from $6 per month to $8 per month. This increase, one of several changes announced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on March 4, 2014 in its final rule for WIC food packages, first went into effect for children ages 1 to 5 on May 5, 2014. States had until yesterday to implement the change, which was based on recommendations made by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) of the National Academies of Science. The CVVs may be redeemed for any eligible fruit and vegetable within the types (fresh, frozen, canned and/or dried) authorized by the States.
Overview of the WIC Program
WIC food packages are one component of the WIC program, a supplemental food, nutrition education, and social service referral system to assist low-income mothers, infants, and children up to age 5 who are at risk for poor nutrition and face food insecurity. To be eligible for WIC, participants must have an income level at or below 185 percent of the poverty level or be on Medicaid. For a family of four, that would be $43,568 annually, according to guidelines effective July, 1, 2013 to June, 30, 2014.
Initially created as a pilot program in a 1972 amendment to the Child Nutrition Act, WIC operates through state and local agencies in all 50 states, 34 Indian Tribal Organizations, the District of Columbia, and five U.S. territories and now serves over 8.5 million mothers, infants, and children per month. According to the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) at USDA, which is responsible for administration of the program, in coordination with state and local entities, children have always been the largest category of WIC participants. According to an April 2014 FNS WIC fact sheet, “[o]f the 8.6 million people who received WIC benefits each month in FY 2013, approximately 4.6 million were children, 2.0 million were infants, and 2.0 million were women.”
These food packages are actually monthly checks made out for specific food items which participants can use at participating stores to buy those items. Along with SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps), WIC helps to fight hunger, along with improving nutrition, health, growth, and development – especially for infants and young children. Unlike SNAP, WIC is not an entitlement program and it prescribes specific foods to supplement participants’ diets with specific nutrients. The foods are chosen based on USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans and established dietary recommendations.
Cash Value Vouchers as Part of the WIC Food Packages
In 2003, USDA asked the IOM to conduct a scientific review of the nutritional needs of the WIC population and to recommend changes to existing WIC food packages. IOM published its final report in 2005 with recommendations for various changes to the WIC food packages, including WIC fresh fruit and vegetable CVVs of $8 per month for children and $10 per month for moms.
On December 6, 2007, FNS published an interim rule revising the WIC food packages, largely reflecting recommendations made in the IOM’s 2005 report, WIC Food Packages, Time for a Change, the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and the infant feeding practices recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. It was in this interim rule that CVVs were introduced into the WIC food package, with children receiving $6 in CVVs per month, non- or partially-breastfeeding women receiving $8 in CVVs per month (both amounts of which were slightly below the amount recommended by the IOM), and fully breastfeeding women receiving $10 in CVVs per month – though the fruits and vegetables to be purchased with CVVs were not restricted solely to fresh items. For all other WIC foods, WIC participants continue to be given quantity-based WIC food vouchers.
On December 31, 2009, FNS published an interim rule allowing all women participating in WIC to receive $10 in CVV per month, consistent with IOM’s recommendations. Following a notice and comment period, the final rule published in March 2014 included the following changes to CVVs:
The final rule marked the first comprehensive revisions to the WIC food packages since 1980.
Benefits of WIC Cash Value Vouchers
The increase in cash value vouchers has great potential to help not just low-income families improve their access to healthy food and overall nutrition and health, but to also boost incomes for produce farmers and increase the reach of farmers markets.
Initial research on cash value vouchers have shown wide acceptance by participants and success in increasing and sustaining fruit and vegetable consumption both throughout the intervention and in the 6 months that followed. According to the IOM, a substantial body of research supports the association of fruit and vegetable consumption with reduced risks of chronic diseases, including stroke, some cancers, and type 2 diabetes, along with the promotion and sustaining of weight loss in those overweight.
32 States Missing Out on the Direct Marketing Option
For farmers and farmers markets, increased cash value vouchers means the potential for increased produce sales and an increase in their customer base. Although studies have not yet been conducted on the impacts of CVVs on farmers and farmers markets, if the success of SNAP (formerly known as food stamp) incentive programs (which, like CVVS, also increase the purchasing power of low-income consumers at farmers markets) is any indication, CVVs are poised to make a significant impact in sales for farmers and farmers markets. In a 2013 study examining SNAP incentive program use at farmers markets by Fair Food Network, Market Umbrella, Roots of Change, and Wholesome Wave, $1.5 million in SNAP incentives were redeemed at farmers markets engaging 4,852 farmers/vendors in 24 states and the District of Columbia. At least 64 percent of vendors reported that they sell more produce, make more money, and have more customers because of SNAP incentives.
With the potential for far-reaching economic and health benefits, CVVs should be approved for acceptance by farmers and farmers markets nationwide.
Currently, USDA reports that as of April 2014, only 18 states, along with the District of Columbia, the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma, Puerto Rico, and the Northern Mariana Islands and Guam, have authorized farmers to accept WIC CVVs. NSAC believes all states should authorize farmers and farmers markets to accept the vouchers and should do so as quickly as possible. Check the map. If your state has yet to authorize farmers to accept CVVs, now — with the increased benefit levels just going into effect — is an opportune time to urge your state to take this simple step to support low-income families and local farmers.