Changes to WIC disappoint dairy industry

Advocacy did not deter new USDA rules

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WASHINGTON — In November 2022, the U.S. Department of Agriculture revealed proposed rule changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children. Many in the dairy industry were surprised and alarmed because the rule changes included a reduction in the amount of milk program participants would be allotted.

“There wasn’t a good explanation for why USDA was working to reduce milk,” said Matt Herrick, senior vice president of public affairs and communications for the International Dairy Foods Association. “There wasn’t really any forewarning. We were surprised, confused and frustrated, and the more we talked to WIC agencies and moms who are in the program, the less we understood the proposal. It just didn’t make a lot of sense.”

IDFA and other groups in the dairy industry worked to deter the proposed changes.

“We felt that if we advocated enough, we could change their minds,” Herrick said. “We had a significant and aggressive advocacy program on this that lasted more than a year. We really felt like we were making headway — the arguments we had were factual, relevant and supported by people in the (WIC) program — but at the end of the day, the USDA still decided to reduce (the allotted amount of) milk.”

On April 9, USDA issued a final rule, making the changes official. For milk, the allotted amount per month through WIC will be reduced from 16 quarts to 12 quarts for children 12-23 months of age, from 16 quarts to 14 quarts for children ages 2-4, and from 22 quarts to 16 quarts for pregnant and breastfeeding women.

USDA’s website states what it aims to achieve through the changes to WIC.

“The changes will provide WIC participants with a wider variety of nutritious foods to support healthy dietary patterns and accommodate special dietary needs and personal and cultural food preferences,” USDA said. “The revisions provide foods in amounts that are more consistent with the supplemental nature of the program, encourages fruit and vegetable consumption, and strengthens support for breastfeeding.”

Many in the dairy industry see the changes as negative for both nutrition and the dairy industry itself.

“The reduction is as much as 3 gallons per mother per month, which would be for a mother who has at least one other child and is pregnant,” Herrick said. “We estimate that’s about 150 million gallons per year, or about 0.5% of all U.S. production by volume.”

The 0.5% estimate is for the reduction in milk due specifically to the new rules, Herrick said, but that is just part of the equation.

“That’s only if all the people who are in the program stay in the program,” Herrick said. “It doesn’t account for people leaving WIC if they are dissatisfied with this rule.”

When IDFA was advocating to deter the new rules, it interviewed moms in the WIC program and sent videos of those moms talking about their experiences with WIC to the USDA and Congress. IDFA found that many moms were enrolled in WIC specifically for access to milk and were not happy about the new rule.

“What we learned is that there are a lot of women in the program who may just leave it because they are in it for milk,” Herrick said. “If the amount of milk they are used to receiving is no longer there, why participate, why give all your information to the government, because it’s a very prescriptive program as it is. It’s not like (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) where you can go to the grocery store and buy almost anything you want in terms of food and beverages.”

 WIC enrollees are limited to a specific list of about 25 items that they are allotted through the program.

“For a lot of people, (WIC’s limitations are) generally frustrating anyhow, and with reduced milk, we believe there will be reduced participation, unfortunately,” Herrick said.

The new rules, therefore, seem counterproductive to USDA’s efforts to increase the number of eligible families who enroll. According to USDA statistics, only half of those eligible for WIC apply for the program.

For making changes to WIC rules, the USDA said on its website that it relied on research from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine. It also used research from the National Institute of Medicine which suggested increasing access to fruits and vegetables within the program, leading to a reduction in access to milk.

“This seemed more like a shell game … like they were looking for some food item in (WIC) that they could reduce, whether it was fruit juices or milk, and then find the resources to increase fruits and vegetables without needing to ask for additional funding from Congress for the program,” Herrick said. “Milk was simply the victim of looking for other alternatives to increase in the program.”

The rules come at a time when research is showing the benefits of dairy consumption while also showing that most Americans do not get enough dairy in their diets.

In an April 9 press release issued by the National Milk Producers Federation, Gregg Doud, president and chief executive officer, addressed the nutrition aspect of USDA’s decision.

“NMPF is disturbed by (USDA’s) decision to reduce access to the essential nutrients dairy adds to the diet,” Doud said. “Nutrition science demonstrates that dairy products like milk, yogurt and cheese are especially important for women, infants and children. Meanwhile, nearly 90% of Americans don’t meet the number of dairy servings recommended by the 2020-25 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”

Doud also said the change is counterproductive.

“This rule works against the WIC program’s goal of ensuring all Americans have consistent and equitable access to healthy, safe and affordable foods,” he said.

Herrick said the rule change will make budgeting and shopping for food more difficult for moms in the WIC program.

“If you think about WIC moms, they are low income, and they’re likely also on the SNAP program, so they have these two supplemental programs for grocery shopping,” Herrick said. “If you’re going to use your SNAP benefits for the majority of your grocery shopping, you’re going to look for items that are available through WIC that you don’t need to use your SNAP benefits for.”

For many of those moms, one of those main items is milk, Herrick said.

“Now they no longer have as many benefits available for that milk,” Herrick said. “For moms in particular, that’s deeply disappointing.”

The new WIC rules were not all negative for dairy.

“(USDA) did make some changes that were helpful,” Herrick said. “You no longer have to buy a big 32-ounce tub of yogurt. You can buy smaller, individualized containers that equal 32 ounces, which is how people mainly eat yogurt, or you can swap your milk for yogurt or cheese, which is helpful to the overall dairy category.”

State WIC agencies have two years to implement the changes. In the meantime, the only remaining avenue for changing the rules is through Congressional action. Herrick said some industry organizations are already contemplating legislative recourse.

“The WIC rule demonstrates that when the government issues rules that impact our industry in some way, it’s an opportunity for us to come together and advocate, and it requires us to have our eyes and ears open to pay particular attention to the rules that impact our industry,” Herrick said.

This, he said, includes federal nutrition programs because they are vital to the industry.

“For those with low income and for kids at school, nutrition programs are often their introduction or connection to dairy products,” Herrick said. “We’ve got 30 million kids in schools getting meals every day, 6-7 million women and kids in the WIC program and 40 million people in the SNAP program. Those are all very important to our industry, to the vitality and growth of our industry, and to creating generations of dairy consumers and milk drinkers.”

Herrick said it takes work and collaboration to protect dairy.

“Anytime there’s a rule proposal out there, I encourage people to work with their associations and with their networks to advocate for whatever is in the best interest of themselves as farmers or processors or as our industry in general,” Herrick said. “It’s an important lesson that we shouldn’t take anything for granted, and we need to work hard to protect our interests.” 

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