Robert Murray and Marianne Smith Edge
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Eating patterns established in early life impact health throughout life. The U.S. “Dietary Guidelines for Americans” promote healthy eating patterns from birth to help minimize diet-related chronic disease risk over the life span. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) nutrition program, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC, is our most effective food assistance program for more than 6 million lower-income, at-risk pregnant women and their children.
Yet, Ohio fails to take full advantage of all that WIC can provide. Of those who are WIC-eligible, less than half are enrolled. Participation has fallen by 50,000 individuals, even as food insecurity and economic instability rose following COVID. Nationally, the trend is similar. In the past five years, participation in WIC has decreased by almost a million participants.
WIC food packages have evolved over time to meet the nutritional needs of its intended population. Updates in 2009 resulted in improved nutrition for participants. Obesity rates for WIC children under the age of 4 have fallen steadily.
But now, USDA has proposed further changes, some with potentially unintended consequences. One is the reduction of the monthly allowance of dairy.
Americans of all ages rarely meet the recommended daily intakes of milk and dairy. Yet, the USDA proposes a significant reduction in the monthly allotment for WIC participants. A pregnant woman with two children under 5 years of age could lose the equivalent of up to 3 gallons of milk per month, depending on the age of her children. Instead of improving diet quality, the reduction of milk will make it even less likely for WIC children and mothers to meet the recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines.
Why the concern? Dairy contains 13 essential nutrients and offers the highest-quality protein, equivalent to eggs. Dairy is a source for three of the nutrients of concern cited by the Dietary Guidelines – calcium, Vitamin D, and potassium. After young children wean from breast milk or infant formula, and as first foods are introduced, milk provides a solid nutritional foundation, due to its balance of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates, and its complex mixture of vitamins and minerals. These are vital to sustain rapid growth.
There is no “nutritional equivalency” between plant-based “milks” and dairy milk. (Currently, WIC only accepts soy-based fortified drinks for allergic individuals). Pediatric expert panels have clearly stated that the low protein quality and poor nutrient composition of such alternate plant-based beverages will not support the rapid growth of young children.
Ohio has strong national voices that can help protect mothers and children. Recently, U.S. Rep. Max Miller, a Rocky River Republican, joined more than 25 members of the U.S. House of Representatives in sending a bipartisan letter to USDA opposing the WIC dairy cuts.
But more is needed. Sen. Sherrod Brown sits on the Senate Agriculture Committee. Gov. Mike DeWine is one of the nation’s most vocal child advocates.
Now is the time to contact your members of Congress to preserve and promote the nutritional value of WIC for all eligible women and children in Ohio.
Dr. Robert Murray is a retired professor of pediatrics at The Ohio State University, a pediatric nutrition specialist, and a past president of the Ohio Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Marianne Smith Edge, an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Dietetics and Human Nutrition at the University of Kentucky, is a member of the American Society for Nutrition, and a former president of The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
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