More than 150,000 low-income Hoosier women — along with their infants and young children — enrolled in a nationally-funded nutritional program could see a pandemic-era allotment increase for fruits and vegetables made permanent under program rule changes proposed this month.

Before Congress authorized the temporary bump in March 2021’s American Rescue Plan Act, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children — better known as WIC — allotted just $9 worth of fruits and vegetables monthly for children and $11 monthly for pregnant, postpartum and breastfeeding participants. Now, kids are eligible for $24 per month, and adults can get $43-$47 a month.

Congress has extended the higher fresh foods benefits four times, through December 2022. But new program rule revisions from the U.S. Department of Agriculture would make it permanent.

A mom’s perspective

“When WIC first rolled that out, it was game-changing,” said Eva Bell, moms organizer for nonprofit Hoosier Action. “You really don’t have a lot of access to that stuff. Families in poverty really don’t.”

Bell, who is a mother to three children, said she had participated in WIC on and off over a period of about 10 years. Children are only eligible until the age of five; hers have aged out. But the WIC benefits, she said, eased her stress as a low-income parent.

“When you’re constantly like, ‘I can’t afford that vegetable,’ or ‘I can’t afford to introduce this thing to my baby’s diet,’ … you do feel some bit of shame and you do worry about: does this impact them developmentally?” Bell said.

“Not only was it a big deal to see my kids be on the track to building a thriving future, it also lifted a mental load [that] a lot of parents in poverty go through,” she added. “Because we really do want to provide for our kids what everyone else’s kids have.”

About 153,000 Hoosiers participated in WIC in 2021, according to preliminary USDA data.

In addition to a permanent higher fruit and vegetable allotment, the proposed rule revisions also:

  •  Expand while grain choices with the addition of quinoa, blue cornmeal and more.
  • Add more non-dairy substitutions like soy-based yogurts and cheeses, and require that providers offer lactose-free milk.
  • Recommend reducing or scrapping juice as an option, as part of an emphasis on whole fruits and vegetables.
  • Broaden access to canned fish, legumes and more types of fruits and vegetables.
  • Introduce more flexibility to infant formula requirements.

The changes incorporate recommendations from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine and the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 

The USDA said in a news release that the revisions would give WIC administrators — here, the Indiana Department of Health — “more flexibility to tailor the [food] packages to accommodate personal and cultural food preferences and special dietary needs” and give participants more variety and choices. The packages are monthly allowances meant to fill in nutritional gaps in participants’ diets.

“These proposed changes will strengthen WIC — already an incredibly powerful program — by ensuring it provides foods that reflect the latest nutrition science to support healthy eating and bright futures,” said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

IDOH didn’t respond to a request for comment on the impact of the proposed revisions.

Anyone can give feedback on the proposals at regulations.gov until February 21.

“Especially in Indiana, where we have a problem with families being able to access food, access care — to get those things and stay on them — our state agencies can really learn something from WIC and what that success can actually mean for our state,” Bell said, “… if we create easier pathways for families to get something as simple as fruits and vegetables on the table.”

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