Republicans fought WIC — and WIC won

In a year of increased hunger, a win for food security

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published April 10, 2024 5:30AM (EDT)

Red delicious apples (Getty Images/Sergio Mendoza Hochmann)
Red delicious apples (Getty Images/Sergio Mendoza Hochmann)

In January, 50 years after the very first clinic in the country that would administer the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC, opened in Pineville, Kentucky, the National WIC Association’s current president, Georgia Machell, issued a warning: “As we rightly celebrate WIC’s past, we must also take great care to protect it today.” 

At the time, Congress was in the throes of debating the budget for the new fiscal year — and it seemed like the future of WIC was in peril. In July, House Republicans had already proposed curtailing WIC in the chamber’s version of the US Department of Agriculture’s spending bill. As CNN reported, the proposed cuts included reducing WIC’s funding for 2024 to $5.5 billion, which would have been $185 million less than the fiscal year prior; this was despite the fact that the organization had already predicted they would need additional $1 billion in funding to keep up with increased demand amid escalating food insecurity rates. 

Additionally, the House Republicans proposed slashing WIC’s enhanced fruit and vegetable benefit. Instead of receiving $25 to $49 a month to purchase fresh produce, enrollees would receive between $11 and $15. 

Then, in February — a month after WIC’s 50th anniversary — Republicans came for the program again. As Salon Food reported, Congressional lawmakers reportedly seemed to be nearing a deal that would ensure WIC received the additional funding it needed, as long as it meant adding a pilot program called SNAP-choice to the Ag-FDA spending bill. The controversial program would, despite the name, actually restrict what kinds of foods and drinks participants could purchase using their benefits. 

The idea drew the ire of both food security experts, who said that it flew in the face of decades of bipartisan support for maintaining beneficiaries’ autonomy, and the National Grocers Association, who quickly issued a letter saying, in part: “The government will need to categorize more than 600,000 products and update the list each year with thousands more products. Grocery store cashiers will become the food police, telling parents what they can and cannot feed their families.”

However, after months of tense back-and-forth, the final budget has been revealed — and WIC received both the additional $1 billion it needs to successfully operate and, as announced Tuesday, word that the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) has committed to a “significant boost to the fruit and vegetable benefit provided to WIC participants, providing participants with up to four times the amount they would otherwise receive.”

In a year that has otherwise presented staggering challenges to nationwide food security, as hunger and inflation rates are both up, this presents a heartening narrative: Republicans fought WIC and WIC won. 

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In March, congressional leaders approved legislation that included a more than $1 billion funding increase for the WIC. The bill also maintains the increased Cash Value Benefit that provides more dollars for WIC participants to purchase fruits and vegetables. 

“Congress has finally done the right thing for the nearly 7 million women, babies, and young children who rely on WIC each day for critical nutrition and health support,” Machell said in a statement at the time. “This desperately-needed funding increase will ensure that current WIC members will continue to receive their benefits, and that prospective WIC participants can be welcomed to the program rather than turned away.” 

Per the USDA, the Administration was able to secure in total “over $7 billion in critical funding to provide nearly seven million pregnant women, new mothers, infants, and young children with critical nutritional assistance they need and deserve.” 

Then, on Tuesday, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced that the FNS finalized updates to the food prescribed to participants in WIC. According to the agency, these improvements to the WIC food packages support “fruit and vegetable consumption by increasing the amount provided and the varieties available for purchase.” FNS has made permanent a significant boost to the fruit and vegetable benefit provided to WIC participants, providing participants with up to four times the amount they would otherwise receive.

“WIC has a half-century track record of caring for young families. USDA and the Biden-Harris Administration are committed to ensuring that moms, babies and young children continue to thrive through WIC,” said Secretary Vilsack. “These participant-centered changes will strengthen WIC by ensuring the foods participants receive reflect the latest nutrition science to support healthy eating and the brightest futures.”

According to the agency, other enhancements include, but are not limited to: Expanding whole grain options to include foods like quinoa, blue cornmeal, and teff to reflect dietary guidance and accommodate individual or cultural preferences; providing more convenience and options within the dairy category, including flexibility on package sizes and non-dairy substitution options such as plant-based yogurts and cheeses and requiring lactose-free milk to be available; including canned fish in more food packages, creating more equitable access to this under-consumed food; requiring canned beans to be offered in addition to dried; and adding more flexibility in the amount of infant formula provided to partially breastfed infants to support moms’ individual breastfeeding goals.

"In a time of rising food insecurity and high food costs, increasing participants’ purchasing power for healthy foods is critical."

“We are pleased that USDA’s final rule makes permanent the enhanced Cash Value Benefit that has in the past few years helped participants afford more fruits and vegetables,” Machell said in an emailed statement. “A survey released today by the National WIC Association finds that access to fruits and vegetables is the top reason why WIC participants join the program; in a time of rising food insecurity and high food costs, increasing participants’ purchasing power for healthy foods is critical.” 

According to Machell, the updates also provide participants with greater choice and flexibility, including a more comprehensive list of culturally appropriate food options, that will make it easier for participants to maximize their benefits.

“Congress’ recent infusion of an additional $1 billion in funding ensures that WIC will remain available for anyone eligible to join the program,” Machell said. “The updates to the WIC food package build on that success, and are an important reminder that supporting the health and well-being of families across the country is an investment always worth making.”

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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