Teaching pregnant women not to share food with their families: New Republic critique of the WIC program 1977

Teaching pregnant women not to share food with their families.

Strictly From Hunger

This is the story of an obscure $250 million a year program run by the Department of Agriculture which attempts, among other things, to cure both obesity and underweight in  pregnant women by providing the same amounts of food, including commercial junk cereals that are mostly sugar. The Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants and Children (called WIC) is in addition to food stamps and all other social welfare programs.

WIC was created by Hubert Humphrey on the floor of the Senate in 1972.  It was intended as a two-year experiment. There were no legislative hearings, and the House never even considered the proposal, which at that time weighed in at a mere $20 million per year.

Humphrey carried on to the floor of the Senate “before” and “after” photographs of an infant  from Memphis who had starved nearly to death and who had probably suffered  brain damage as a  result. Humphrey  introduced an amendment to the school lunch bill which created a pilot program in the Department of Agriculture (for some reason) to see whether it would be a good idea to provide nutritious food to pregnant and lactating women and children up to four years of  age. The amendment passed overwhelmingly despite Agricul­ture Department opposition based on the apparent failure of a similar previous effort. The proposal was agreed to in conference without consideration by the House. President Nixon had no choice in an election year but to sign the school lunch bill, and so WIC became law.

The program was created, its sponsors will tell you, at the recommendation of th e 1969 White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health. Actually, the Conference recommended against programs, like WIC, aimed at special vulnerable groups like infants and pregnant women.

The Conference report said, quite logically, “Programs that assume that some family members can eat less well than others while all are seated together at the family table are unrealistic.”

The WIC program requires in regulations published this February that, “All foods obtained under the Program are to be used exclusively by the recipient, and not shared with other members of  the family .”

In the first year after passage the Agriculture Department, which opposed the program, did nothing to set it up. The department argued  that it knew nothing about maternal and child health care and that the program really belonged in HEW. After a year the administration announced its intention to save the taxpayers $34 million by spending six million dollars on a study instead of $40 million over two years. This produced a law suit by a public interest group called the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) .

Judge Oliver Gasch of the US District Court for the District of Columbia found that Congress had not intended to find out whether feeding people was a good idea. Congress had intended to spend the money feeding as many people as possible. Agriculture officials frantically ran around the country, in the words of one observer, “handing out dollars.”  Just as Judge Gasch was about to declare the department in contempt of court, USDA announced that 143 clinics were to be funded. In January 1974, the first recipients received WIC food.

To be eligible for WIC food, a physician or “health professional” must certify that you are “a nutritional risk.” The law lists certain medical conditions: obesity, underweight, stunting, anemia which the free food is in tended to help . But it also allows “low-income” to be used as a determination of  “nutritional risk.”  The idea, a sensible one, is that if you are pregnant  or an infant and you can ‘t afford to eat properly, then you are at risk of being in bad health.

Despite stringent federal regulations about who qualifies for food, practices vary widely among  the local health clinics. In some everyone who walks in the door, regardless of income or medical condition receives the food. In others a  poor person must prove she or he has a qualifying medical condition in order to obtain a “package containing infant formula, orange juice,  Kaboom cereal, etc.

By October 1975  the Democratic Congress­ overriding President Ford ‘s veto increased  the WIC funding to $250 million per year. It was no longer a temporary program. A subsequent lawsuit over delays and failure to appropriate funds resulted in an order by Judge Gasch that in effect  forces the Agriculture Department to share administration of the program with the federal courts. Four times a  year until September 30, 1978  (when the current funding expires), Agriculture officials must report to Judge Gasch about what they’ve been doing and how much money they have been spending.

Attempts to evaluate the program or even to define its purpose are hopelessly difficult. The Agriculture Department does not even have a  list of the local programs it funds or how many people receive benefits. Since qualifying for the program requires a health examination, many who live in areas of high poverty and  high infant and maternal mortality rates are ineligible for benefits because of the absence of medical care.

WIC pays for food, the administrative cost of distributing the food and nutritional education to teach recipients how to use i t. There i s a pretense that the amount of food provided is tailored to the nutritional requirements of the individual, but in  practice most clinics, for administrative reasons,  provide the maximum quantity permitted .

There is no rationale for the size of the food package. An obese child of four receives the sa me quantity of food as a underweight pregnant girl of 14. Infants under six months of age, for example, receive infant formula , juice and cereal far in excess of their recommended daily requirements.

Local administrators oppose any reduction in the size of the package on the grounds that families share what is provided. A stud y by the Urban Institute found that even though it is prohibited, 81 percent of recipients admitted that they share the food with their families.  To  make sharing  easier, nutritionists  provide recipes using infant formula to make fudge and chicken broth. The quality of nutritional education is often poor.  It frequently consists of exhortations to a pregnant woman not  to share her omelet with her family .

Probably the saddest thing about this program is that it serves a real need. Many who would not otherwise receive prenatal examinations or inoculations for disease are lured into health clinics by the desire for free food.

For many of the program’s 785,000 participants, the $22 worth of food a month represents a badly needed income supplement. Against the will of its creators and national administrators, the WIC program has  become another  general welfare program for feeding the hungry, and we still don ‘t know how many of our citizens are hungry .

Joel Solkoff

Joel Solkoff is a Washington writer specializing in food issues.

Published by The New Republic June 11, 1977.


Copyright 2013 by Joel Solkoff. All rights reserved.

Note 1:  “Many countries, including the United States, Sweden and Germany, count an infant exhibiting any sign of life as alive, no matter the month of gestation or the size, but according to United States some other countries differ in these practices. All of the countries named adopted the WHO definitions in the late 1980s or early 1990s,[ which are used throughout the European Union. However, in 2009, the US CDC issued a report that stated that the American rates of infant mortality were affected by the United States’ high rates of premature babies compared to European countries.”– Wikipedia 2013

Note 2: The WIC program costs $7 billion a year. The Conference Committee ironing out the differences between the House and Senate versions of the Farm Bill has agreed to a compromise which will leave the WIC program essentially in tact. How much in tact remains to be seen, but I am reliably informed that WIC will continue to be with us.

Note: 3:  “WIC. The WIC Program helps improve the health and nutritional intake of low-income pregnant, breast-feeding and postpartum women, infants and children up to their fifth birthday. WIC serves over half of all babies in the United States. WIC works by providing participants with vouchers redeemable at retail grocery stores for foods dense in nutrients known to be lacking in the diets of eligible groups and by providing nutrition education, breastfeeding counseling and referrals to other important health and social services.

“The Budget proposes $7.1 billion for the WIC Program, continuing the Administration’s commitment to serve all eligible individuals seeking WIC benefits. In 2014, 8.9 million low-income women, infants and children are expected to participate in the program. The request includes $60 million for breastfeeding peer counseling, one of the program’s objectives, and $30 million to help States improve their management information systems and work toward implementation of Electronic Benefits Transfer, which is mandated nationwide by 2020. The Budget also proposes an increase of $1 million to support program integrity efforts.” —  From President Obama’s USDA FY 2014 BUDGET SUMMARY AND ANNUAL PERFORMANCE PLAN


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