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A federal food program gets a healthy makeover


WASHINGTON (AP) -- Let them eat tofu, the government says.

That's one of the new food products being offered under a major overhaul of the Women, Infants and Children program. But primarily, the Agriculture Department wants more fruits, vegetables and whole grains on the plates of poor women and children and less milk, cheese, eggs and juice.

The department calls the change the first major revision of the program in 30 years. The changes will be effective next February and state agencies will then have 18 months to implement them. The program serves about 8 million people.

Eric Steiner, the department's associate administrator for special nutrition programs, said WIC recipients typically have diets deficient in whole grains, fruits and vegetables. He said there's also a prevalence of obesity among the population.

The USDA based the changes on suggestions by the Institute of Medicine with the caveat that the revisions not increase costs. The Institute of Medicine is a branch of the National Academy of Sciences, an independent organization that advises the government on scientific matters.
The reductions of other products, such as dairy, were made both to keep the cost of the program from rising and to improve nutrition.

"The revised packages have less saturated fat and cholesterol, and this is accomplished by reducing the quantities of milk and cheese," Steiner said.

Under the WIC program, people receive vouchers for specific foods, averaging about $39 a month in 2007. Under the revisions, vouchers for fruits and vegetables will be $6 for children, $8 for women and $10 for fully breast-feeding women -- with the goal of encouraging more women to breast feed.

Products such as tofu, soy beverages, tortillas and brown rice are being offered as alternatives to meet the demands of more culturally diverse populations.

The department received more than 46,000 public comments since first proposing the changes last year, and most were supportive, Steiner said.

Anti-hunger advocates praised the changes. Jim Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center, said the addition of whole grains, fruits and vegetables will reduce obesity and "help nutritionally vulnerable children form healthy eating habits from an early age."

The dairy, egg and fruit juice industries backed the additions, but lamented the reduced roles for their products. Carol Freysinger, executive director of the Juice Products Association, said the reductions could "send an inappropriate and unsubstantiated message about the benefits of 100 percent juice consumption."

According to government estimates, annual milk and cheese sales under the revised program will be about $960 million, a reduction of roughly $400 million. Juice sales would be reduced by nearly half, to $281 million, while egg sales would drop from $120 million to $67 million.

Chris Galen, a spokesman for the National Milk Producers Federation, called the lost sales to dairy significant.

"And we don't think it's prudent from a public health standpoint," he said.

Howard Magwire, a lobbyist for the United Egg Producers, said he was hopeful the industry could make up for some of the losses with WIC recipients spending other money on eggs.

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