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POLICY INSIGHT
BEYOND THE NUMBERS

Helping Kids Get a Healthy Start Through WIC

| By CBPP
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CBPP

“As researchers learn more about how hardship early in life can shape kids’ future, it’s important to understand which interventions can help all kids have the same opportunities — no matter where or to whom they’re born,” CBPP Senior Policy Analyst Zoë Neuberger writes at MomsRising.org.  The WIC nutrition program for low-income women and young children has a long track record of making sure that kids get a healthy start, she explains, citing these examples:

  • Healthier births.  Prenatal participation in WIC helps mothers give birth to healthier infants with higher birth weights.  WIC participation also helps reduce infant mortality.  For example, a recent Ohio study found lower infant mortality among WIC participants than non-participants — especially among African Americans, where the infant mortality rate for WIC participants was half that for non-participants.
  • More nutritious diets.  Strong evidence suggests that WIC participation increases infants’ and children’s intakes of some essential vitamins and minerals.  As a result, WIC has helped reduce iron deficiency and anemia.  Mothers participating in WIC are also likelier to follow recommended infant feeding practices, like delaying the introduction of cow’s milk until a baby turns 1.  And the percentage of infants participating in WIC who were breastfed rose by 39 percent between 2000 and 2012.  In addition, the Agriculture Department’s 2009 revisions to the WIC food package to encourage healthier eating boosted participants’ consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products.  WIC may also have contributed to the recent halt in the rise in obesity among low-income preschool children.
  • Stronger connections to preventive health careLow-income infants and children who participate in WIC receive health care referrals and are much likelier to receive appropriate preventive and curative care.  For example, low-income children participating in WIC are just as likely to be immunized as more affluent children — and much more likely than low-income children not participating in WIC.
  • Improved cognitive development.  New research links prenatal participation in WIC with improved cognitive development and academic achievement.  Children whose mothers participated in WIC while pregnant scored higher on assessments of mental development at age 2 than similar children whose mothers did not participate.  Moreover, the benefit persisted into the school years, as children whose mothers participated in WIC while pregnant performed better on reading assessments.

The President and Congress should ensure that WIC remains strong and accessible to eligible low-income families when they renew the program this year, she concludes.

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