Karen smiled nervously, her swollen belly peeking out from under her stretched silver tank top. Six months pregnant with her first child, the eighteen-year-old had come to the WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) office for help with getting enough to eat. As a medical student with a background in nutrition advocacy and a future in pediatrics, I had asked to observe the WIC enrollment process.
Karen and I looked at her information packet. Crisp images of broccoli and berries splayed across its bright pages. But its text told a different story: each month for the remainder of her pregnancy, she was to receive just $11 total for the purchase of all fruits and vegetables.
With $11 to spend on produce at Kroger, Karen could purchase seven bell peppers. Or four and a half bags of romaine salad. Or four bunches of asparagus. Or three packs of white button mushrooms. Or one of each. For an entire month. (All non-organic, of course.)
But according to the U.S. government’s Healthy Plate dietary guidelines, Karen should be eating at least 2.5 cups of vegetables per day (and that’s the estimate if she wasn’t pregnant). Even if she gave up fruit and instead spent her entire $11 on vegetables, she’d be able to buy less than four days’ worth of vegetables. WIC is a supplemental program that doesn’t aim to cover comprehensive dietary needs. Nevertheless, with a full 26 days left in the month, this produce budget falls gravely short.
Yet Karen’s WIC plan also provided her with copious amounts of less-healthy foods, including coupons for juice, sugary flavored yogurt, and a whopping 4.5 gallons of milk each month. Frosted mini-wheats and brown sugar oatmeal squares counted as whole grains, which she was encouraged to eat liberally. Organic foods were, in most categories, strictly forbidden.
This is what our country feeds its poorest mothers and children.
Though dire, Karen’s grocery cart reflects an improvement to prior WIC allotments. In 2005, a nutritional report released by the Institute of Medicine sparked a move toward healthier offerings. Nearly a decade later, WIC rolled out stricter nutritional guidelines, marking the program’s first comprehensive revision since 1980, with more support for whole grains, produce, and low-fat dairy. Thus Karen’s paltry $11 produce budget is heftier than it would have been before the revision.
This alarming observation speaks to the broader context of American food policy: a corporate-influenced agricultural subsidy system has created a society in which an apple is more expensive than a bag of Cheetos. This broken system ensnares programs like WIC. People like Karen suffer.
It’s time for another revision, one that prioritizes health over corporate influence. Healthy diets—full of vegetables and fruits, low in added sugars and refined grains—support healthy lives. With its revision, WIC is moving in the right direction, as recent evidence suggests that obesity rates have decreased among children receiving WIC support. This is good news, but it’s not enough. We need further changes to the ratio of foods offered, with a higher percentage of the WIC budget dedicated to fruits and vegetables. By nourishing America’s mothers and children, we can nourish society’s collective future.
Hanna Saltzman is a medical student and can be reached on Twitter @hannasaltzman.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com