How To Ensure Your WIC Program Supports Healthy Food Choices

July 13, 2020
baby eating cereal

The Oregon Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) became the first WIC Program in the nation to remove arsenic-containing infant rice cereal from its list of approved products to purchase with the WIC food benefit in February 2019. 

WHY REMOVE RICE CEREAL FROM WIC? 

WIC’s food benefit differs from other nutrition programs because it provides specific quantities of selected foods, rather than a dollar amount to purchase food. For example, once an infant is six months old, 24 ounces of infant cereal is added to their food package along with infant food fruits and vegetables.   

For years, the Oregon state staff have followed consumer alerts about arsenic in infant rice cereal and shared this information with WIC local agency staff.  It was disheartening to see 2017 tests by Healthy Babies Bright Futures and a repeat of tests by Consumer Reports in 2018 that continued to show high levels of inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal compared to non-rice and multi-grain infant cereals. In fact, 

  • Rice readily absorbs arsenic from the environment, about 10 times more of it than other grains.
  • Rice cereals contain six times more arsenic levels compared with other infant cereal options.
  • Arsenic causes cancer and permanently harms babies’ brain development. Rice cereal is babies’ top source of arsenic exposure.

This news tipped the scales for Oregon. It was time to act.  

Fortunately, this coincided with starting revisions to our WIC Food List. Typically it takes 9 to 12 months to complete a full review to revise the Food List. Using our existing data driven process, we determined the removal of infant rice cereal would not limit the number of manufacturers on our food list as their other grain options would remain available. 

WHAT WERE THE CHALLENGES?

While the purchasing data clearly demonstrated that most WIC families were already buying infant cereals not containing rice — 1% purchased barley, 5% whole wheat, 19% multi-grain, and 45% oatmeal — some small rural stores only carried infant rice cereal. Prior to implementation, the decision to remove infant rice cereal was discussed during a WIC Vendor Advisory Committee meeting. 

All WIC stores received information about the change so they could assure non-rice infant cereals were on shelves to meet the new WIC stocking requirements. Removing infant rice cereal brought greater variety and safer infant cereal options for babies in every corner of the state, whether WIC participants or not.     

WHAT WAS THE RESPONSE? 

The final decision to remove rice cereal and emphasize the other grain options was welcomed by the local staff and incorporated into the education they provide on infant feeding.     

By grounding ourselves in the most recent science, following our existing food review processes and utilizing data to assess the input and impact of all stakeholders, we experienced a smooth transition when the infant rice cereal was removed from the food list. The few participants who initially expressed a concern about the change to the state office were later appreciative once they learned the reason we did so.    

With the removal of infant rice cereal, the Oregon food list better aligns with our mission to support the health and development of the infants we serve through the WIC Program. 

 

 

Would your City like to learn more about the Oregon’s WIC Food List revisions? Contact Karen Bettin, Nutrition Consultant at the Oregon Health Authority at karen.bettin@state.or.us

Is your City interested in being part of Healthy Babies Bright Futures’ Bright Cities program? To discuss this and anything else, please contact Bright Cities Program Director, Kyra Naumoff Shields at knaumoff@hbbf.org.