Good nutrition bad for (some) business

Hillary Wicai Nov 3, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: Pediatricians have been reading the fine print of some new Medicaid rules. And they say they’re troubled by some of the eligibility requirements. The rules were imposed by the Bush Administration back in July. They force illegal immigrants to take an extra step to make sure their children born in the U.S. are eligible for health coverage. Even though those kids are American citizens by virtue of being born here. Doctors say that increases the chances those parents won’t get health care for their newborns.

The government foots the bill for health in other ways. After food stamps and school lunches, the Women, Infants and Children program is the government’s largest nutrition line item. Washington will spend almost $5.5 billion on it this year — 8 million pregnant women and new mothers will get help paying for certain foods. But what they can buy with those vouchers might be changing. Marketplace’s Hillary Wicai reports.

BRIANNA: Grapes! Apples. Carrrrrr-uhhht. Baby wants some food!

HILLARY WICAI: Two-year-old Brianna isn’t your typical vegetable hater. Just ask her mom Britney DeLoutch.

BRITNEY DELOUTCH: She loves, loves salad. She likes green beans, grapes. She loves fruits and vegetables.

And that’s a good thing, except fresh fruits and veggies are expensive ” sometimes even out of reach for a single working mom on a tight food budget.

DELOUTCH: Actually I went to the store the other day and I got a little thing of baby romaine and it was almost $4.

DeLoutch says the help she gets from WIC makes her $75-a-month food budget stretch farther, but it seems strange to her that she currently can’t use her WIC vouchers at a supermarket to buy fruits and vegetables. With WIC she is able to buy produce at some area farmers markets, but only during part of the year and the markets aren’t always easy to get to.

Under a new proposal put together for the Agriculture Department by the Institute of Medicine, Britney would get $8 in vouchers per month to spend on fruits and veggies for herself and $6 for produce for her daughter — year-round at her local grocery store of choice. Advocacy groups say that change represents about $2 billion worth of fruits and veggies over five years.

GERI HENCHY: The WIC people at USDA have been trying to come up with new guidelines for quite a while.

Geri Henchy is with the Food Research and Action Center. She says that in the early 1970s the concern was that poor diets didn’t contain enough protein, thus WIC was born and it emphasized protein rich eggs, cheese and dairy. But our understanding of proper nutrition has clearly changed in 30-plus years.

HENCHY: Fruits and vegetable consumption helps kids develop healthy habits and helps kids keep their weight down.

Still, in a cost-neutral environment bound by tight budgets, adding veggies to the grocery list means something else had to come off. The recently proposed plan would reduce cheese, milk, eggs and juice to pay for produce. Howard Magwire with the United Egg Producers says cutting WIC vouchers from about two dozen eggs per month per person to about a dozen eggs would take a $72 million bite out of sales — roughly 1.5 percent of annual egg sales.

HOWARD MAGWIRE: We certainly have no issue with the addition of fruits and vegetables: I mean motherhood and apple pie and that kind of thing. But we think that it’s shortsighted to take out such a great food that clearly has contributed to nutritional health.

First high-protein diet fads fell out of favor, now this. Pity the incredible, edible egg. And long-term sales could be hurt as well. Both egg producers and juice manufacturers say WIC helps foster future buying habits and the loss of those potential lifetime customers concerns Jim Callahan of Welch’s.

JIM CALLAHAN: After they’re out of the WIC program, foods that they’ve been able to sample that they’ve been able to include in their diet, those foods are likely to remain with them over time.

Juice makers and egg producers aren’t the only ones with ruffled feathers. Remember, the current WIC program does help participants buy from Farmers Markets.

Small farmer Betty Miller in Maryland knows her clientele at a local farmers market is likely to shrink if WIC moms can buy fresh veggies at the grocery.

BETTY MILLER: I thought that it was originally set up for the farmers markets, to help the farmers — not the big corporations like that with the fruits and vegetables.

With farmers and egg producers, juice makers and the dairy industry all upset, it’s easier to understand why it’s taken so many years for government funding to catch up with nutritional science. And it’s not set in stone yet, the comment period for the proposal ends Monday. Final approval is expected some time next year.

In Washington, I’m Hillary Wicai for Marketplace.

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