USDA adds yogurt to WIC program

USDA announced final changes to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) that are designed to improve the nutrition and health of the nation's low-income pregnant women, new mothers, infants and young children. The changes include increased access to low-fat dairy and allowing yogurt as a partial milk substitute, according to the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA).

According to an IDFA summary, the final rule provides the following dairy provisions:

• Milk: Whole milk is allowed for children less than two years of age. Older children and women will receive fat-free, low-fat or reduced-fat milk.

• Cheese: Participants may swap their milk allowance for cheese, with a limit of one pound of cheese for older children and most women (there is a two-pound limit on cheese for fully breastfeeding women). The interim final rule allowed cheese to be issued above this limit for participants who had a special dietary need, such as lactose intolerance. However, due to the increased availability of lower lactose dairy products (lactose-free milk and yogurt), the final rule will not allow cheese to be issued above the limit for any participant. If participants trade their milk allowance for cheese, the full allowance of milk must still be provided. (There would be an extra quart of milk each month after trading for the cheese.)

• Yogurt: Yogurt was not provided for in the Interim Final Rule. However, due to an overwhelming number of comments and a pilot program that demonstrated the feasibility of including yogurt in the WIC food package, yogurt will be allowed in the Final Rule. Yogurt may be swapped for milk at the rate of one quart yogurt to one quart milk, with a limit of no more than 1 quart of yogurt per month. Yogurt in the food package must meet the federal standards. Whole milk yogurt is allowed for children less than 2 years, while yogurt for older children and adults must be low fat or nonfat. The yogurt must be unsweetened, or contain no more than 40 grams of total sugar per cup. Container sizes are left to the discretion of the state agencies.

IDFA worked with food industry coalitions to advocate for the yogurt substitution.

"IDFA is pleased that USDA has continued to align the WIC program with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which recognize yogurt as ‘an appropriate equivalent milk product" consumers can choose to obtain the recommended two-to-three servings of dairy each day," said Clay Hough, IDFA senior group vice president. "In fact, a pilot study conducted by IDFA member General Mills and several other organizations has shown that adding yogurt to the WIC program can help to increase dairy consumption and improve nutrient intake among participants."

In addition to the yogurt substitution, USDA will no longer require a medical waiver for soy milk substitution. This final rule allows WIC professionals to make the determination that children or women may receive non-dairy alternatives like soy beverage or tofu instead of milk. This could be for health reasons, or for cultural reasons.

USDA will encourage state agencies to allow for lower sodium versions of WIC foods, including cheese as they become available. USDA also encourages companies to reduce sodium in food and make a wider variety of lower-sodium options available.

USDA's announcement marks the completion of the first comprehensive revisions to the WIC food packages since 1980. The final rule will go into effect 60 days after publication, probably March 4, 2014, but the yogurt provision can be implemented no earlier than April 1, 2015.