by Slow Food USA staffer Patrick Keeler
If the recent Farm Bill controversy wasn’t enough to roil us up, recent discussions via Tuft’s COMFOOD listserv in regards to the Women Infant & Children (WIC) Program have gotten many food activists like me in a veritable tizzy. It was there brought to my attention that in Michigan, the WIC program brochure clearly states after each category of eligible foods and products: “No Organic Allowed.” Don’t believe me? You can view the document here, followed by a similar document from Florida. What is the rationale behind such exclusionary purchasing you may wonder?
A program of the USDA, the Feds set the maximum redeemable value of the vouchers, checks, or EBT cards. Vouchers used in stores are separate from the Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (and seniors farm-fresh FMNP) and other fresh produce initiatives. However, WIC is managed by state, and each is given discretion as to which brands, and which quantity, size and packaging are allowed to be purchased with said vouchers. By default, each state also determines whether or not organic is a category of foods made available to mothers and children in this federal assistance program.
From the perspective of a food justice advocate, leaving this choice to policy makers and not consumers is simply unethical—”organic, free-range, GMO- and hormone-free and wild-caught foods should be available to all!” reads the manifesto.
Yet again, however, there exists an economic argument for the “no organic” rule—we know legislators think so. If we assume that organic products receive a price premium of an ~ 30% price markup compared to conventional products, the argument follows that for every 3.33 mothers opting for organic with their vouchers, one family goes without any vouchers at all, being denied entry into the program. This is because the $ budgeted to WIC is set by the Feds once a year, not on an as-needed basis.
This is faulty rationalization, however. WIC vouchers are not currently assigned a dollar value—for now anyway, but I’ll come back to that—they are quantitatively valued: ounces and pounds are specified, not a price cap for the products being purchased. The resources that fuel the WIC program have to come from somewhere (tax payers), but who is it that has the right to rule that WIC recipients do not have the option—insert basic right—to eat as much organic food as possible? But, each time “choice” enters the so-called free market equation in this context, I am reminded that it is food industry lobbyists who really control how wide-reaching the WIC program is, what the nutritional standards are and, at the state levels, which companies make the designated brand lists. We’re not supposed to have a choice.
In 2009 we will most likely see a return to the economic argument vs. right to choose organic debate, because, for the first time in 30 years the WIC program is undergoing significant alteration. Remember that currently, WIC check vouchers are not assigned monetary value, they are simply exchanged for quantities of product. Next year new vouchers for fresh fruits and vegetables will have a cash value—a landmark move that will surely beget critics and supporters. Hitherto to this expected change, only very limited amounts of fresh produce was listed on the allowables lists (for example, 2 lbs of carrots, non-organic). Fruits and veggies were available mainly through the FMNP, and access to farm markets in many low-income neighborhoods is typically harder to find than a decent grocery store. So this is a good thing on paper if choice is permitted by the consumer.
It still remains that wherther mothers can exercise choice in purchasing organic will still lie in the hands of state WIC agencies. We’ll see whether the “if 3.33 women purchase organic at a premium, then another family goes without” argument resurfaces.
Exercise your democratic right by voicing your opinions on the interim ruling. The USDA will be taking comments on the 2009 Reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Programs, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and the WIC Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program through October 15, 2008. Follow this link to The Federal Register with info on how to comment.
In addition, the FNS will be holding listening sessions around the country starting June 10. More information and the times and locations of the listening sessions are posted here.
Also, a wonderful group named The Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) has a deeply informative website that delves into the future and current state of the WIC program.