The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) provides healthy foods, nutrition education, and medical referrals to low-income infants, young children, pregnant and post-partum women who are at nutritional risk. WIC has considerable reach serving about half of all infants born in the US and a significant proportion of children ages 1-4 years. In 2019, the WIC program spent over $3.2 billion on food assistance for 6.4 million WIC participants. Because of its broad reach and targeted impact on young high-risk children, WIC has important potential for early intervention to develop healthy eating habits and prevent excessive weight gain in low-income children.

In 2009, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) revised WIC food packages to offer foods that better reflect dietary recommendations and promote healthy weight in WIC participants. The revisions provided support for the establishment of long-term breastfeeding and increased consumption of fruit, vegetables and whole grains while reducing intake of saturated fat, cholesterol and sugar.

The main changes included the addition of new whole grain products, cash-value vouchers for fruits and vegetables as well as reductions in milk, cheese and juice and restrictions on the fat content of milk. The Rudd Center’s economic team has conducted one of the first comprehensive evaluations to assess the nutritional impact of the WIC food package revisions, including changes in access to healthy foods and food purchases of WIC participants.

The team has shown that implementation of the WIC food package revisions significantly increased the availability and variety of key healthy foods in WIC-authorized convenience and grocery stores, improving access to healthy foods in underserved communities. When facing new government regulations to stock healthy foods, WIC retailers found ways to deliver healthy foods that were previously lacking on their stores and in their communities. At the same time, the nutritional profile of food purchases among WIC participants has improved in line with the changes introduced by WIC: a significant increase in purchases of fruit and vegetables, low-fat milk replacing whole milk, reduced juice purchases, and increased purchases of whole grain products that also led to an offset of refined grains. Many studies have since provided further evidence to the success of WIC revisions in achieving their intended goals.

Rudd Center Research

Key Studies