- USDA wants to lower the amount of milk WIC participants can get each month.
- More than 6 million low-income moms and children rely on WIC for milk and dairy products.
- Some say cuts could mean less milk consumption at critical life stages and lead to health issues later.
Got milk? It may be a whole lot less if the U.S. Department of Agriculture gets its way.
The USDA has proposed dropping by as much as 25% the amount of milk that mothers and children can receive each month through the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).
The USDA says the cuts are “science-based” recommendations by the independent National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) of world experts. Currently, milk is provided in amounts up to 128% of the recommended daily amount of dairy, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
The new recommendations would provide milk in amounts between 71% to 96% of daily recommended dairy, the USDA said. It emphasized WIC is a “supplemental” nutritional program, which the American Academy of Pediatrics says makes the proposed milk reduction consistent with the purpose of the program.
While WIC isn’t intended to be used as a primary food budget, the reality may be different for millions of Americans.
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More than 6 million low-income mothers and children, including an estimated 43% of all infants in the United States, rely on WIC each month, according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service.
Already 90% of Americans don’t get enough dairy, according to the USDA, and some believe the cut could exacerbate that and have lasting negative effects on the health of children and women.
In a Morning Consult survey of 534 WIC participants in mid-December, 76% were concerned about the proposed cuts to milk and dairy amounts, and 20% said they wouldn’t even bother to re-enroll in the program if milk and dairy cuts were made. One-third said they weren’t sure if they would continue with WIC.
“It doesn’t make any sense to me,” said Brittany Oxley, a WIC participant and medical assistant for Valley Health in West Virginia who works with WIC mothers. “Most women are on WIC for the milk. They rely on this every month. If it gets cut, they’ll have to pay for it out of pocket, and right now, everything is so expensive,” said Oxley, who is a single mother of two.
What is recommended for kids and pregnant women?
The USDA recommends:
- Toddlers under 2 years: between 1-2/3 to 2 cups daily, or up to about 51.5 to 62 glasses each month.
- Kids aged 2-3 years: 2 cups of dairy per day, or up to 62 glasses per month.
- Four- to eight-year-olds: 2 1/2 cups per day, or up to 77.5 glasses monthly.
- Nine years of age and up: 3 cups per day, or up to 93 glasses each month.
- Pregnant and breastfeeding women: 3 cups per day, or up to 93 glasses per month.
Note: 1 quart = 4 cups, or glasses
What are the new planned recommendations?
The proposed monthly changes, which the USDA says are based on recommendations from NASEM are:
- Children 1 year (12 through 23 months): 12 quarts of milk (48 glasses), down from 16 (64 glasses)
- Children 2 through 4 years: 14 quarts (56 glasses), down from 16 (64 glasses)
- Pregnant women: 16 quarts (64 glasses), down from 22 (88 glasses)
- Partially (Mostly) & Fully Breastfeeding: 16 quarts (64 glasses), down from 24 (96 glasses)
- Postpartum: 16 quarts (64 glasses), unchanged
“The logic of this escapes me,” said Dr. Keith T. Ayoob,Ed.D., a pediatric nutritionist and director of the nutrition clinic at the Rose F. Kennedy Children’s Evaluation and Rehabilitation Center at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in Bronx, New York. “These changes would take the WIC allotment below what is recommended for kids.”
Megan Lott, deputy director at the national Healthy Eating Research (HER) program that identifies strategies to improve children’s nutrition and prevent childhood obesity, said the reduction for kids between 2 and 4 is probably OK since at that age, most of their nutrition comes from other foods.
However, HER believes the reduction for kids under 2 is too much because it would equate to approximately 53% to 80% of its recommendation of two to three cups of milk daily.
HER submitted a letter during the USDA’s comment period about the revisions suggesting a reduction for kids under 2 to 14 quarts, instead of 12, per month. That “would equate to approximately 1.8 cups of milk per day. This would provide approximately 60- 90% of the HER Beverage Consensus recommendation,” it said.
Who would be most affected?
Low-income children who need essential nutrients that can be efficiently and economically delivered by milk, and pregnant and breastfeeding moms, Ayoob said.
“Osteoporosis is a pediatric disease with adult consequences,” Dr. Ayoob said. “You can only add (bone) mass in the first 25 years. You don’t want to set people up for brittle bones and hip replacements.”
Negative health effects would be even worse for non-white Hispanic and Black women and children because they already lag their white counterparts in milk and dairy consumption. Among those ages 2 and older, African Americans had the lowest average daily intake at about 1.2 servings while white Americans consumed the most at nearly 1.7 servings, according to a study published last year by Oxford University Press.
Across all ethnic groups, plain milk was consumed in greater quantities than any other dairy food, it noted.
In proposing the changes, the USDA is also recognizing many people may be lactose intolerant and need something other than cow’s milk.
“It’s hard to tell what dietary impacts will be because we also tend to see higher instances of lactose intolerance among Asian, Blacks and Hispanics,” Lott said. “Because of feedback for non-milk options, it’s allowing lactose-free milk for the first time as a milk substitute. Lactose-free milk contains the same key nutrients as dairy milk and is still an excellent source of protein, calcium, vitamins, and minerals.”
(Most states currently offer WIC recipients a lactose-free option, but the USDA would make this a requirement.)
Dr. Laura Plencner, pediatrician affiliated with Children’s Mercy Kansas City Hospital, said “the tradeoff for decreasing the amount of milk, which most families are not utilizing to the full benefit anyway, comes at the great benefit of increasing the fruits and vegetables, which are drastically too low in the current WIC package.”
About a third of WIC families redeemed more than 90% of their monthly whole milk allotment for children aged 12-24 months and about 20% did for low-fat milk for kids aged two years and up, Lott estimated.
Only $8 in cash value per month per child participant is included in the current WIC package for fruits and vegetables, “which is far below the cost of a child eating the recommended 5 or more servings of fruits and vegetables in a day,” she said. USDA proposes increasing the cash value to $24 per month per child.
What are the benefits of milk?
Aside from calcium and vitamin D, milk has eleven other essential nutrients, and is a good source of protein.
According to a 2016 study, milk and dairy products reduced risk of childhood obesity, improved adult weight loss and body composition, and possibly reduced risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, particularly stroke. People who consumed milk and dairy also had fewer instances of colorectal, bladder, gastric, and breast cancers, and the activity was not associated with risks of pancreatic, ovarian, or lung cancers.
There are calcium-fortified plant-based drinks but, nutritionally, cow’s milk and plant-based drinks are completely different foods. The American Society of Nutrition says if your child is up to age 2 and can tolerate dairy milk, it tops all non-dairy milks for nutrition. One study found an association between non-cow milk consumption and lower childhood height, it noted.
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What other changes did the USDA propose?
Aside from milk reductions, here are some other changes the USDA proposed:
- Decrease juice for children 1-4 years old by half to 64 fluid ounces
- Ban flavored milk
- Increase infant formula amounts in the first month to up to 364, from 104, fluid ounces for partially breastfed infants
- More fruits and vegetables and more varieties of them would be available for purchase, a change roundly praised by experts.
- Yogurt amounts were increased, and soy-based options were added as milk substitutes
- Cereals would have to be whole grain
- Canned fish was added for children 2-4 years and for pregnant, partially breastfeeding and postpartum individuals
- Canned, not just dried, beans would be allowed
- States can authorize a greater variety of package sizes to increase variety and choice that can add up to the full monthly benefit
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Where does the issue stand now?
Bipartisan Congressional groups are lobbying the USDA not to reduce milk in WIC benefits.
“Three of the top five foods redeemed are dairy products, and current WIC allotments allow cost-sensitive families to continue purchasing dairy products, especially as milk prices alone have increased nearly 20% since last year, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics,” seven senators led by Roger Marshall of Kansas wrote in a letter to the USDA.
Public comment on the proposed changes closed at the end of February. The USDA is now incorporating the feedback into developing a final rule, which typically takes up to six months, Lott said.
“When the final rule is published, it will include an implementation timeframe,” a USDA spokesperson said. “The process of developing and publishing the final rule typically takes several months to complete.”
Medora Lee is a money, markets, and personal finance reporter at USA TODAY. You can reach her at email@example.com and subscribe to our free Daily Money newsletter for personal finance tips and business news every Monday through Friday morning.