Health researchers say federal changes to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children may have helped to improve the healthy-food selection in two North Philadelphia neighborhoods.
The program, often called WIC, is for pregnant women, new moms and young children, who are at medical or nutritional risk. Different than food stamp program, participants get vouchers for a mix of specified foods items.
In 2009, the food available through WIC changed to meet a wider variety of cultural tastes and keep pace with national nutrition guidelines. Public health nutritionist Jackie McLaughlin says the WIC food package had been essentially the same for 35 years.
“Whole milk, cheese, eggs. It had a high amount of juice that was allowed and we know that those high-fat foods are implicated in the development of obesity,” said McLaughlin, who leads the master of public health program at the University of Pennsylvania.
She and colleagues measured the food environment at stores in two North Philadelphia ZIP codes, 19132 and 19133.
By 2010, McLaughlin said, the healthy-food score for the bodegas and other stores that accept the WIC voucher had increased by 32 percent. There was also a greater variety of healthy items available in nearby stores that do not accept WIC.
The finding was published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. New Jersey’s Robert Wood Johnson Foundation funded the research. The study did not measure purchasing or consumption, so it is not clear if WIC participants’ eating habits changed along with the store selection.
The new food package allows for reduced fat and soy milk, tofu, brown rice and whole-wheat tortillas. There is also a monthly allowance for fresh fruits and vegetables — things such as bok choy and plantains. Before 2009, Philadelphia participants got a voucher for fresh veggies only once a year in the summer.
Dietitian Linda Kilby is executive director of N.O.R.T.H., Inc., the nonprofit group that manages Philadelphia’s WIC programs. Her agency rolled out an education program to coincide with the 2009 food package change. Women now work with a nutrition expert to set family healthy-eating goals.
“They’re saying, ‘Maybe my child does drink too many sweetened beverages, maybe we need to drink more water. You’re right, maybe we need more vegetables in our regular meals,'” Kilby said.
She said many of Philadelphia’s WIC participants are very young parents who eat out a lot or buy carryout food.
“I can’t say that they’re all cooking now, because they are not, but I can tell you that they are cooking more things than they did in 2009,” Kilby said.
There are about 70,000 WIC participants in Philadelphia.
To qualify for the WIC program, a woman or child must be medically or nutritionally at risk. Among her clients, anemia, related to lead exposure, and obesity are common, Kilby said.