WASHINGTON - The United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association here is supporting an initiative that for the first time would include fresh-produce vouchers in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, more commonly known as WIC.
The proposed changes would benefit not only low-income women and kids, but retail produce departments, too, which would see higher traffic and potentially millions of dollars in additional sales under the proposed rule change.
United has launched a three-year, $1.5 million fund-raising campaign, Project Fresh Start, a program devoted to changing the WIC food packages to include vouchers for fresh produce.
"We think that adding fruit and vegetable vouchers would be a good thing," said Barry Scher, spokesman for Landover, Md.-based Giant Foods, a participating WIC retailer. "However, we are still waiting for the final rules to be issued from the federal government and this won't be out for quite some time."
The WIC food packages have not been changed since the program's inception in 1974. In early 2004, the Institute of Medicine formed a committee to review the food packages to determine if a redesign could help participating families eat healthier diets.
By law, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is supposed to publish a final rule by November but that's not likely to happen because the department has not yet published the proposal, said Lorelei DiSogra, vice president of nutrition and health for United. DiSogra will direct Project Fresh Start.
"We hope that the proposed rule will come out sometime in mid- to late summer, but we don't control that, USDA controls that," DiSogra said. "We fully expect that when the proposed rule does comes out, it will include fruits and vegetables."
The committee's guidelines were presented in a report, "WIC Food Packages: Time for a Change," and include recommending fruit and vegetable vouchers. As it stands, only vitamin C-rich juices and occasionally carrots are covered, in addition to staples like infant formula, milk, cheese, eggs and peanut butter.
"The produce industry, the UFFVA, the nutrition community and the WIC community is fighting to make available the $10 per month fruits and vegetables voucher for women and $8 per month voucher for kids," DiSogra told SN.
WIC serves 8 million women, children and infants a month, so - if the fruit and vegetable vouchers are approved - traffic and sales in produce departments will increase substantially.
"Unlike in the first 32 years of WIC, finally they're going to go shopping in the produce department and they're going to bring with them, if USDA does what the IOM has recommended, $602 million in purchasing power every single year," DiSogra said.
The committee made evaluations in accordance with the dietary guidelines and the needs of WIC participants. The group also recommended reduced portions of milk, juice and eggs to avoid additional costs in the program.
"From what we've heard from retailers, they're happy to see the change," said Cecilia Richardson, WIC staff nutrition programs director, Washington. "They're happy to see that more business is brought into their stores."
Save Mart stores in Calaveras County, Calif., have participated in a WIC fruit and vegetable pilot project that gives women a chance to redeem $5 vouchers for fresh produce. The program benefits consumers as well as stores, said Sharon Blakely, consumer relations coordinator and health and nutrition educator for Save Mart, based in Modesto, Calif.
"It's a win-win situation for everybody. There are higher customer counts and numbers of shopping trips, and it gives WIC participants the accessibility of fresh produce when they want it as opposed to the farmers' markets, which are not open on a regular basis," Blakely said.
Officials have seen an impressive 88% redemption rate with the vouchers, and there's also been no cost to implement the program, she added.
"No extra training was needed, and processing the vouchers takes less time than verifying a check," she said.
Similarly, officials at Giant expect the program to be cost-effective and beneficial to the community.
"We will promote it with in-store signage and also work in cooperation with the state and federal governments to promote the expansion of the program," Scher said. "We don't anticipate any major costs that would be involved.
"It's good for us and I think that anything that can provide better nutrition for those individuals who need it, the recipients of the WIC program, will be a positive thing," he said.