Research finds WIC is vital, but vastly underutilized

A recent study underscores the need for Congress to continue bipartisan commitment to fully fund WIC.

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC, is vital to the health and well-being of nearly half of our nation’s babies, along with millions of young children up to age 5 and their mothers. Yet, recent research based on 2021 data published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service shows more than 6 million of those who are eligible for the program are missing out on its proven health benefits.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

The just released study reports that an average of 12.13 million moms, babies, and young children were eligible for WIC in 2021. However, only 51 percent, or 6.21 million, of those who were eligible actually participated.

A number of new findings are included in this year’s report: coverage rates by urban and poverty status; participation rates by state, race, and ethnicity; state estimates by WIC participation category, race, and ethnicity; and nonparticipation rates among Medicaid and SNAP participants.

While eligibility estimates for 2022 and 2023 are not available yet, preliminary data shows that WIC participation is rising in most states, with 6.7 million moms, babies and young kids benefitting from the program today. But sustaining that progress will depend on congressional action to maintain the longstanding bipartisan commitment to provide enough funding for WIC to serve all eligible people seeking to join the program. The Biden-Harris Administration asked Congress early this fall to fund WIC at the level needed to support this increased participation, but Congress has yet to take action on the request.

A failure to fully fund WIC this fiscal year means some states would likely need to put eligible families on waiting lists.

“We’re making progress in connecting more of our nation’s youngest children and moms with WIC’s life-changing benefits,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “It’s up to Congress to fully fund WIC this fiscal year and continue the 25-year bipartisan track record of making sure every eligible low-income mom, infant, and child seeking WIC services can get the vital nutrition they need to thrive.”

WIC provides mothers and young children with supplemental nutritious food, nutrition education, breastfeeding support, immunization screening, and important health and social services referrals. A strong body of research supports the positive impact of these benefits. For example, WIC mothers and children are more likely to eat healthy. WIC participation also results in fewer infant deaths, fewer premature births, and increased birth weights — and it is shown to reduce healthcare costs.

Recognizing these powerful outcomes, Congress has fully funded the program for decades, allowing USDA and its state agency partners to provide these robust benefits and services to all those who are eligible and wish to participate.

Congress also provided USDA with funding in the American Rescue Plan Act to modernize and strengthen the program so that it reaches more eligible families and serves them well throughout the entire time they’re eligible. FNS investments include prioritizing outreach, improving the shopping experience, investing in and diversifying the WIC workforce, and enhancing technology and service delivery.

“The Biden-Harris Administration is committed to creating a healthier future for our country and that starts by ensuring every mom, baby and child in the U.S. receives the nutrition they need to achieve their full potential,” said Stacy Dean, deputy under secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services. “By closing the WIC participation gap, we can make incredible progress on addressing hunger, nutrition and health in America.”

Learn more about how WIC builds healthy foundations and how FNS is modernizing WICat the FNS website.

USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service works to end hunger and improve food and nutrition security through a suite of 16 nutrition assistance programs, such as the school breakfast and lunch programs, WIC and SNAP. Together, these programs serve 1 in 4 Americans over the course of a year, promoting consistent and equitable access to healthy, safe, and affordable food essential to optimal health and well-being. FNS also provides science-based nutrition recommendations through the co-development of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. FNS’s report, “Leveraging the White House Conference to Promote and Elevate Nutrition Security: The Role of the USDA Food and Nutrition Service,” highlights ways the agency will support the Biden-Harris Administration’s National Strategy, released in conjunction with the historic White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health in September 2022.

To learn more about FNS, visit www.fns.usda.gov and follow @USDANutrition.