Policy Point Wednesday: Did Changes in WIC Drive Change in the Food Desert?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAH/T to The Lunch Tray, who linked a discussion in the New Yorker about the connection between reduced rates of obesity and 2009 changes to the WIC  (Supplemental Nutritional Program for Women, Infants, and Children) program.  The Rudd Center director suggested that one factor in this change might be that “fringe food” purveyors may be stocking healthier foods in order to attract WIC dollars.

The only hard numbers to support this assertion come from a Yale Rudd Center study on juice consumption and consumer behavior in WIC participants.  Prior to 2009, the WIC allowance for juice was nearly double the amount recommended by federal dietary guidelines.  The USDA overhauled the program in 2009, changing the food offered in the WIC “package” in hopes of improving the diet of participants.  The Yale Rudd study used scanner data from a local supermarket chain to study whether or not WIC families changed their juice-buying habits with the policy change, or whether they simply used personal money to buy juice or other sweetened beverages.  The study showed that there was not only a decrease in juice purchases, but also an overall decrease in soft drink purchases, two major sources of empty calories.

That said, while it’s clear that WIC restrictions do have an effect on the food choices of participants, it is unclear whether there is a direct link between WIC rules and food access: Yale Rudd director Marlene Schwartz expressly used the word “hypothesis” in her statement.  It seems premature, given what we know, to assert that changes in food policy will definitively change the behavior of food retailers.  However, since these studies indicate that these policy changes do have a positive effect,  I think it’s worthwhile to study whether changes in SNAP and WIC can also promote positive change in the food supply.  Let’s hope researchers agree.

Filed under: Food News

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