"Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.”

Voucher rule remedies near miss 10 years ago

Tom Karst
National Editor

Singer Garth Brooks was alluding to the “whew that was close” sentiment of his once thwarted ambitions for his old high school flame. As Brooks tells it, years later, she “wasn’t quite the angel that I remembered in my dreams.”

In retrospect, Garth was glad God didn’t grant his teenage prayer to win the hand of his girl in marriage and be with her forever.

That sentiment could apply to many things in life, I suppose, but the relevant example for this week is the case of U.S. Department of Agriculture Women, Infant and Children food packages.

As I recently talked with Tom Stenzel and Lorelei DiSogra of United Fresh about the decade spent working to change the WIC food packages, I was fascinated by the story of a public policy near miss during the Clinton administration.

Stenzel said Shirley Watkins, then U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Undersecretary of Nutrition in the Clinton administration, had backed a plan in 1998 to add sweet potatoes, collards, spinach and perhaps other dark green and orange vegetables to the WIC food packages.

That initiative ran out of steam after the election of President George W. Bush in 2000 and the transition between administrations.

But the story didn’t end there. United Fresh and other advocates didn’t give up, of course.

The perceived need for greater representation of fruits and vegetables in feeding programs was bolstered with a Government Accountability Office report in 2002 that concluded that enhanced federal efforts to increase consumption of fruits and vegetable could yield health benefits for Americans.

Then, in September 2003, the USDA asked the Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences, to make a recommendation about changes to the WIC food packages.

The move was seemingly designed in part to shield the agency from the sharp elbows of the food lobby in the debate about reshaping the WIC food packages.

When the IOM issued its report in 2005 with science-backed recommendations to add fruit and vegetable vouchers to the mix and subtract some allocations of dairy products and juice so the program would more closely align with the nation’s dietary guidance, the agency had legitimate backing to go ahead with a proposal.

Without that IOM report advocating for fruit and vegetable vouchers, changes to WIC food packages would have never occurred, DiSogra believes.

“It wasn’t until after the IOM report made their recommendations that we were then able to take it to the next level and demonstrate that this was working in some of these demonstration projects,” she said.

The IOM report noted that two demonstration projects in California used a voucher system that allowed WIC participants to make their own choices of fruits and vegetables.

DiSogra sought out the leaders of those pilot programs in September 2005. United Fresh paid for their trip to Washington in December 2005 so the experts could brief Capitol Hill lawmakers and USDA officials about their experiences with vouchers.

Part of that process to prepare for the briefing was analyzing five years of receipts stored in a garage from one California demonstration project, DiSogra recalls.

The object was to understand the results of the demonstration projects and be prepared to answer questions from lawmakers.

“Once the IOM report came out, the other food industry players were already fighting against it,” DiSogra. “They didn’t want anything to happen to their items.”

United Fresh and other advocates had to show that vouchers would work to increase diversity in the diet, that the vouchers would increase consumption and that the system would work for retailers.

“If those two demonstration projects never existed, if we hadn’t found them and used that data, I don’t know if we would be where we are today,” she said.

Now, while the limited revision to the WIC food package would have been a step forward in 1998, Stenzel believes the latest revision may not have occurred.

“I think we are in a much, much better place with that than had we won in 1998 and had gotten just five other vegetables in (WIC food packages).”

Fast-forward to 2009. The WIC food packages offer vouchers to millions of children and moms that give them healthy options for their diet and freedom of choice within the produce department, at funding levels far more robust than the levels envisioned in 2000.

As Garth says, some of God’s greatest gifts …

E-mail tkarst@thepacker.com

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