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A Look at Oregon’s WIC Standards: Not So Sustainable, by Amy Wong (July 28, 2014)

Posted by: | February 5, 2015 Comments Off on A Look at Oregon’s WIC Standards: Not So Sustainable, by Amy Wong (July 28, 2014) |

The Oregon legislature passed the Oregon Sustainability Act in 2001, formalizing the state’s commitment to sustainable principles. However, nutrition assistance programs that operate in the state, like WIC (Women, Infants and Children), need a sustainability overhaul to better align themselves with the Act’s core principles. This blog post will highlight some of the most problematic discrepancies between Oregon’s sustainability mandates and WIC. The post will also discuss potential ways in which Oregon’s WIC guidelines could be modified to not only ensure that women, infants and children have access to more sustainable nourishment, but to also bring the WIC guidelines into better harmony with Oregon’s commitment to sustainability—at least to the extent practicable by federal law.

The Oregon Sustainability Act defines sustainability as “using, developing and protecting resources in a manner that enables people to meet current needs and provides that future generations can also meet future needs, from the joint perspective of environmental, economic and community objectives.”(1) The Act also directs that state purchases should be made so as to serve the broad, long term financial interests of Oregonians, including ensuring that environmental, economic and societal improvements are made so as to enhance environmental, economic and societal well-being.(2)

On the other side of the equation, WIC provides federal grants to states for supplemental foods and other benefits for low-income pregnant and postpartum women, as well as to infants and children who are found to be at nutritional risk. Originally established in 1972, WIC is administered at the federal level by the Food and Nutrition Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The program supplies recipients with basic groceries like fruits, vegetables, grains, milk, bread, tortillas, tofu, eggs, and canned tuna. Though the nutritional content of food provided through WIC is considered a cornerstone of the program, sustainable food options, largely regarded as too expensive, are not. WIC aims to supplement the nutrition of as many participants as possible, which often means using the cheapest (and largely unsustainable) food available in order to stretch budget dollars.

Looking at the WIC standards through the lens of the Act, it is clear that the economic interests of the state are taken into consideration, but environmental interests are not. Social justice and policy tensions between sustainability and frugality, and the fact that many Oregonians face food insecurity, mean that the Sustainability Act’s principles are, to a degree, idealistic when applied to nutrition assistance. However, sustainability principles aim to take into account the long-term health of not only people, but also their environment, which could be accomplished by mandating sustainable initiatives in institutionalized scenarios like WIC. Arguably, relying on cheap food now will create additional environmental and health costs for everyone later, including WIC recipients. Increasing the sustainability of food allowed by WIC will inevitably lead to increased costs in the near-term, but eventually, the costs will equalize when society is forced to factor environmental externalities into food costs. Further, other cash-strapped agencies in Oregon still take the Act’s mandates into consideration when making or directing purchasing decisions. Lastly, other states have taken steps to include more sustainable offerings in their WIC standards and Oregon should do the same.

While all states must adhere to federal guidelines when setting their WIC-authorized foods, states are given leeway to consider regional, cultural and other preferences. Some states take advantage of this to offer more organic choices than other states—California allows organic dried legumes whereas Oregon does not.(3) Oregon WIC standard generally lack allowances for any organic food—and many of the WIC-allowed foods are grown or processed in ways that are contrary to sustainable principles, such as chemical-intensive industrial agriculture. A related “organic” tangent is the debate surrounding genetically modified organisms (GMOs). By dis-allowing organic food, WIC recipients necessarily eat a higher percentage of genetically engineered (GE) foods than a consumer who has the ability to choose organic selections, as by law, organic food cannot contain GMOs. For example, only non-organic corn tortillas are allowed under WIC. According to the Center for Food Safety, up to 85 percent of U.S. corn is genetically engineered, meaning that the lion’s share of non-organic corn products contain GMOs.(4)

In addition to the lack of organic products included in the Oregon WIC-approved food list, other problems also exist. For one, WIC recipients cannot reuse containers for products that could be refilled at bulk foods sections, like peanut butter. Participants must purchase a new container every time, and alternate nut butters are also banned, despite many people suffering from peanut allergies. Second, many WIC-approved brands are produced by large corporations that have little concern for sustainable principles. For instance, in 2013 Greenpeace cited WIC-favored grocery brand Kroger for not supporting sustainable ocean legislation and for having poor seafood purchasing policies. The latter includes carrying 17 out of 22 red list seafood species, four of which are top-tier red list species, including canned tuna as allowed by WIC.(5) Other grocery stores and brands have taken steps to ensure that the canned tuna that they offer or produce is sustainably harvested at a nominal cost increase—WIC should demand the same of all brands that they recommend and partner with.

Other products are troubling as well, like eggs. Oregon has low and environmentally unsustainable standards for eggs. Oregon only allows white eggs even though federal guidelines call for “fresh shell domestic hen’s eggs of any size, white or brown shells.”(6) However, neither the federal, nor state guidelines allow for organic or cage-free eggs, which is a poor policy choice in terms of environmental, animal welfare, and human health standards. The majority of white, non-cage-free eggs come from battery cage hens.(7) Egg operations that house battery cages have been linked to environmental violations and extremely poor animal welfare standards across the country. Unfortunately, this means that WIC recipients are only allowed to purchase the worst quality eggs available.

Eggs are one of the cheapest sources of protein, and feeding people sustainably produced eggs makes long-term environmental sense. It seems logical to use taxpayer funds to support a more holistic egg industry that better internalizes environmental and animal welfare costs, than to support one that does not by forcing low-income consumers to purchase its product. Arguably, the state cannot afford to feed sustainable, pasture-raised meat to all WIC recipients because of supply-side issues, higher product costs that incorporate environmental externalities, and budget constraints. Policy makers must broker a compromise in order to meet both sustainability and nutrition assistance goals. Cage-free (if not organic) eggs would be a way to provide those in need with high-quality protein, while also better protecting the long-term environmental health of the state. Sustainably produced eggs are a low-hanging fruit in the debate between shortsighted fiscal frugality and long-term sustainability, and should be addressed when the state next reviews WIC standards to make sure that they are generally in line with the principles of the Oregon Sustainability Act.

WIC standards in general should be re-evaluated because current WIC-allowable foods marginalize women, infants and children by dictating that they use their WIC benefits to purchase food that many in the state would find unsustainable. Ironically, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), widely referred to as food stamps, allow recipients a far greater freedom of choice in their purchases—which can include organic products—but also a host of foods that lack any nutritional content. For instance, well-heeled corporate interests, like soda companies, have used their lobbying power to influence SNAP guidelines, resulting in the SNAP availability of many foods and beverages with negligible nutrition, like sugar-sweetened drinks (soda). Soda alone accounts for an estimated four billion dollars of SNAP purchases annually.(8)

If SNAP would disallow the purchase of sugary beverages, that money could be reallocated to create more sustainable, nutritious food standards for SNAP recipients, and potentially for WIC, if part of the SNAP budget was funneled to WIC. This change would be controversial and contested, because redirecting those benefits to something else, including another assistance program, might reduce SNAP’s overall budget Nonetheless, taxpayers should not continue to fund those portions of assistance programs that enable the purchase of products directly linked to public health concerns like obesity and diabetes.

The same lobbying powers responsible for SNAP’s inclusion of sugary beverages were likely also responsible for the selection of WIC’s favored corporate brands, including Dole, Essential Everyday, Fred Meyer, Kroger, Langers, Old Orchard, Safeway, TreeTop, Welch’s, and Western Family. While some of these stores carry organic options, they all carry a wide variety of products produced without concern for environmental or even human health costs. Of course, people should ultimately have a choices in what they consume, but if states are beginning to actively regulate ordinary consumer purchases through the lens of sustainability, shouldn’t the food allowable under assistance programs be as well? Why should Oregon taxpayers support nutrition assistance programs that are largely powered by corporate foods that fail to support Oregon’s sustainability goals, while simultaneously polluting its environment?

In an ideal world everyone would have access to the healthiest, highest quality food available. Unfortunately, economic realities mean that this is not the case and that many go hungry, especially with politically charged battles being waged over programs like WIC. That said, Oregon and the nation would be wise to proactively weigh the long-term environmental costs of continuing to use the lowest quality, largely unsustainable foods to feed those in nutritional need, against the short-term fiscal savings produced through using such foods.



(1) ORS § 184.423.
(2) Oregon Sustainability Act § 184.423 (1)(a).
(3) For example, compare the allowable foods between California and Oregon.
(4) About Genetically Engineered Foods, Center For Food Safety (last visited on August 9, 2014).
(5) Carting Away the Oceans 7, Greenpeace (last visited May 10, 2014) at 7, 20.
(6) WIC, UDSA.
(7) PETA, The Egg Industry (last visited May 10, 2014).
(8) Kelly D. Brownell and David S. Ludwig, The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Soda, and USDA Policy, 306 JAMA no. 12, 1371 (2011) (citing Shenkin JD, Jacobson MF, Using the Food Stamp Program and other methods to promote healthy diets for low-income consumers, 100 AM J PUBLIC HEALTH No. 9, 1562-1564 (2010)).

under: Food, General

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