In 2009, the U.S.D.A. made a major revision in the list of foods that could be bought with coupons from the federal program known as W.I.C. (short for the Supplemental Nutritional Program for Women, Infants, and Children). The new package included more healthy items (fresh, frozen, and canned fruits and vegetables, whole-grain breads and cereals, and low-fat milk) and fewer dubious ones (sweetened juices, cereals and breads that are not whole-grain). This was significant not only because the changes were so purposefully aimed at improving nutrition for low-income Americans but because W.I.C. serves so many of them—fifty per cent of American infants, twenty-five per cent of children under five, and twenty-six per cent of postpartum women are enrolled in the program.
In many of the low-income neighborhoods where women and children rely heavily on W.I.C., supermarkets are few and far between. Residents with limited funds for transportation are often forced to shop at the kind of gas-station quick marts and dusty-shelved corner stores where they can find plenty of beef jerky, chips, and soda and, other than a bruised banana or two, not much in the way of produce. But when a team of researchers from Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity studied W.I.C.-authorized stores across Connecticut, they found that the stores had responded to the new rules by “improving the availability and variety of healthy foods.” The businesses “found a way,” as the researchers from Yale put it, to make room for low-fat milk on their shelves, and to stock fruits and vegetables and whole-grain breads and other products they had not sold before. In so doing, they revealed a previously unsatisfied consumer demand. The researchers found that nearby stores that did not accept W.I.C. also started offering healthier foods, either because they now had new supply chains to take advantage of, or because customers were now asking for them, or both.
Marlene Schwartz, the director of the Rudd Center, thinks the W.I.C. reforms surely played a role in the reduction of obesity reported this week. The sheer number of families affected is part of the reason. And for two- and three-year-olds, who don’t need as many calories, a relatively small change—a switch to low-fat milk, a dip in the amount of sweetened juice they’re chugging—“can be pretty significant.”
In subsequent studies, says Schwartz, the Yale team has found that the W.I.C. reforms “really make a difference in what people purchase.” There were worries that families would drop out of the program or undermine the purpose of the changes by using their own money to buy lots of less healthy foods. But, by looking at scanner data from grocery stores, the Yale group has determined that this isn’t happening.
For years, the right has been in high dudgeon about almost any government program, any policy innovation that could somehow be disparaged as an excess of the nanny state. That’s been particularly true for public health and nutrition—think of the howl of libertarian outrage that greeted Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s doomed attempt to limit the size of sodas.
Schwartz and other nutrition advocates would like to see the W.I.C.-style promotion of healthy eating extended to the federal food-stamp program, known as SNAP. But, as Jane Black points out in Slate this week, there the opposition comes not primarily from the Republican right but from the food industry, which sells an awful lot of soda and snacks to people with food stamps—and, more surprisingly, from anti-hunger organizations. A host of mayors, including Bloomberg and Cory Booker, of Newark, have called on Congress to allow limits on the use of food stamps to purchase sugary beverages. A poll conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health showed that sixty-nine per cent of the general public and even fifty-four per cent of SNAP recipients agreed that such limits were a good idea. But anti-hunger organizations are firmly opposed to any such changes. Black quotes one advocate’s comment to Food Safety News: “Our view is that people have the smarts to purchase their own food, and we’re opposed to all limitations on food choice.”
The anti-hunger organizers probably worry—and with good reason—that in the current political environment, any move to reform what food stamps cover will morph into a they’ll-only-spend-it-on-junk-food excuse to gut the whole program. But the W.I.C. reforms show that that’s not an inevitable outcome.
And they show something else too: when the government creates incentives for private businesses to behave more responsibly, they often find a way. Information and moral suasion—Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign and the like—are important, but in the salty-sweet sea of temptation we all swim in, they’re not really enough. Big Junk Food, with its ubiquity and its advertising juggernaut, will always swamp earnest nutritional pamphlets and public-service announcements. Unless, that is, there are rules and money on the other side. The Republicans have, by and large, taken to treating public health as a private matter—as though we could all count calories in a self-actualizing vacuum. And that’s too bad, because when it comes to battling obesity, we all need some of the will power that only government can provide.
Illustration by Nolan Pelletier.