USDA program keeps extra money for COVID-era fruits and vegetables

By JONEL ALECCIA, AP Health Writer

U.S. agriculture officials on Thursday proposed changes to the federal program that helps pay the grocery bills of pregnant women, babies and young children, including maintaining increased payments for fresh fruits and vegetables allowed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The update also includes adding more whole grains, canned fish and non-dairy options to their shopping carts. The effort aims to increase the number and type of healthy foods available to families who receive assistance from the Department of Agriculture program known as WIC, officials said.

The revisions would make permanent payments authorized by Congress during the COVID-19 pandemic that increased fruit and vegetable vouchers to $25 per month for children ages 1 to 5 and $49 per month for women who are breastfeeding.

“This increase in fruits and vegetables has really made it attractive for families to have their children in the program longer,” said Geraldine Henchy, director of the nonprofit Food Research and Action Center, who applauded the changes. “Kids really like fruit.”

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More than 6.2 million pregnant women, mothers, babies and young children participate in the program each year. The federal government pays about $5 billion a year to run the program, which is administered by states and other jurisdictions. The Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children provides vouchers to eligible mothers and children and specifically lists the amount and types of foods they can purchase.

The proposed changes to the WIC would also expand access to whole grains, encompassing foods from different cultures, including quinoa, blue cornmeal and teff, an ancient cereal grass from East Africa. The plan also allows more non-dairy options, including soy-based yogurts and cheeses, and requires lactose-free milk to be offered.

More canned fish, such as tuna, would be available as well as easy-to-prepare canned beans, in addition to dried beans, officials said. The plan would also change the amount of infant formula provided to partially breastfed babies.

Raising the fruit and vegetable voucher to $25 a month during the pandemic has allowed Elizabeth Loya, 28, of Los Angeles, to encourage her 4-year-old daughter, Gisselle, to try new foods.

“She tried Brussels sprouts and two weeks ago she tried asparagus,” Loya said. “She liked them.”

The proposed changes are based on a 2017 report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine and the National Dietary Guidelines for Americans. They will be evaluated after a three-month public comment period. ___

The Associated Press Health and Science Department is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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