Congress Helped Many Kids Get More Fruits And Veggies In The Pandemic. That Benefit Runs Out Soon.
Earlier this year, a federal nutrition program that helps pregnant people and moms of young children more than tripled the amount of money allocated for fruits and vegetables each month.
Before the pandemic, WIC’s monthly “cash value benefit” was $9 dollars per child and $11 for moms. The American Rescue Plan designated $490 million to increase the monthly benefit to $35 for each child and adult.
The country’s largest WIC program, Southern California’s PHFE WIC at Heluna Health, rolled out the expanded benefit in June.
“People used all of it, and they used it right, right away in that month,” said Shannon Whaley, PHFE WIC Director of Research and Evaluation. “Benefits didn't go unspent.”
In September, Congress extended the benefit through the end of the year, but advocates say it’s still too early to slash a program that’s helped pregnant, postpartum and breastfeeding moms and young kids eat healthier in the midst of an economically challenging time.
This pandemic isn't over by any stretch of the imagination and families' needs for nutritious foods are not going away ever.
In a typical year, less than a third of L.A. County low-income households experienced food insecurity in the last year. In the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly 40% of families didn’t have consistent access to food. Latino and Black households were especially hard hit.
WIC participation in L.A. County jumped 20% between February and June 2020.
“This pandemic isn't over by any stretch of the imagination," Whaley said, "and families' needs for nutritious foods are not going away ever.”
Better Health For Moms And Babies
Los Angeles mom Kelsey Hill is one of more than 200,000 people that participate in PHFE WIC. The start of the expanded produce benefit coincided with her now 11-month-old son’s introduction to solid food.
”It definitely gave me more of a chance to explore different fruits with him to see what he likes,” Hill said.
Over the summer he fell in love with fresh blueberries, watermelon and cherries.
“[Cherries] can be expensive — $4.99 a pound,” Hill said. “But when you have your WIC card, you're like ‘OK, I can actually afford it.’”
Introducing kids to a wide range of foods when they are young can shape their diet as they grow up.
“More importantly, it provides them with really important vitamins, and minerals that you find in having all different colors of fruits and vegetables,” said nutritionist Lauren Au. She’s also an assistant professor of nutrition at UC Davis and has studied WIC.
The program was created in 1972 amid concern about malnutrition in America's low-income families.
To qualify, participants must be
- or a child 5 years old or younger
Anyone in those categories who qualifies for CalFresh can enroll in WIC, but not everyone who qualifies for WIC can access CalFresh. The income cap for WIC is slightly higher — below 185% of the federal poverty level. For a family of three, that’s $40,626 a year.
Each month WIC participants get certain foods, including grains, dairy, peanut butter and eggs for free.
In 2009, WIC added a monthly sum to spend on fruits and vegetables and it has become one of the most popular parts of the program, in part because it gives participants the greatest amount of choice.
“When we're thinking of WIC where they can have a very culturally diverse audience,” Au said. “This allows them to choose any type of fruits and vegetables that are part of their culture.”
When Au surveyed California families in 2019 more than half said they wanted more money toward fruits and vegetables. Given a choice, they’d opt for more produce over the juice currently offered.
Au said maintaining the new higher produce benefit could retain more participants in the program.
“The longer participants stay in the program, the better nutrition and health outcomes we're seeing for those babies,”Au said.
The pre-pandemic monthly allotment for produce ($9 per child, $11 per adult) pays for less than one serving of fruits or vegetables per day.
Research estimates it costs $48 a month for a child to eat five servings of fruit and vegetables a day and $94 for pregnant or lactating adult.
“We're not saying necessarily that WIC should provide all of the fruits and vegetables that a family needs,” researcher Whaley said. “But it seems very reasonable to say that WIC should provide half.”
The produce benefit expansion is set to expire on December 31.
Congress already extended it once, but without further action, low-income moms will see their budget for fruits and veggies slashed in 2022.
A national poll of likely voters by the National WIC Association and the non-profit Alliance to End Hunger found 76% supported expanding the program’s food package.
Time’s Running Out
Nicole Smith’s daughter Nicole was born July 11 — 7/11 is one of her nicknames.
“She's getting her own personality,” Smith said. “She's talking. she does her ‘Goo Goo’ and ‘Gaga.’ She's laughing and smiling.”
Grocery shopping trips are one of few times the Carson mom is away from her daughter. On a recent Saturday morning, Smith let LAist in on her “Mommy time” at a Torrance Ralphs.
She signed up for WIC on the advice of a friend when she was pregnant. During the week, she often assembles chicken salads with lettuce, tomatoes and avocado. Carrots, celery, onion, garlic and cilantro enrich her soups.
PHFE WIC estimated families enrolled in their program spent $10.6 million more dollars on produce at local stores between June and September compared to the previous year.
This week, the red potatoes in Smith's cart will become the potato salad on her family’s Thanksgiving table. At checkout, Smith’s WIC benefits covered the majority of her $50 bill.
“It really goes a long way,” Smith said. “That increase has been tremendous.”