Monday, February 21, 2005

Does WIC increase children's access to food in general?

The WIC program provides food benefits to pregnant women, infants, and young children. The part for pregnant women has been shown to improve subsequent birth outcomes, which is a very important result. The young children component has been somewhat more severely questioned, including in a book by Besharov and Germanis called Rethinking WIC. A new report from USDA's Economic Research Service may not be the last word on the matter, but it is worth bringing to your attention. It argues that WIC increases children's intake of the foods specifically included in the WIC package, but this increase is offset by reduced intake of other foods, so the effect on total food intake (calories) is negligible.

Results from the analysis show that WIC participants consumed significantly more calories (12-14 percent) from WIC-approved foods than each of the three groups of nonparticipants. On the other hand, the participants consumed significantly fewer calories from non-WIC foods than the two groups of eligible nonparticipants. In terms of total calories consumed from all foods and beverages, there was no significant difference between WIC participants and the two groups of eligible nonparticipants. Thus, there is little evidence that participation in WIC contributes to increased caloric intake among those children eligible to participate. However, WIC participants consumed more total calories than children not eligible to participate because their household income was too high.

One can't base policy on one study, and children's nutrition may be much improved by substituting WIC foods for other foods. Still, it seems fair to say the USDA authors are corroborating one particular concern of Besharov and Germanis (not the whole book). It really would be worthwhile to study WIC effects for young children with a strong (ethical!) random-assignment research design.

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