U.S.D.A. hears need for larger WIC package size range

by Josh Sosland
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WASHINGTON — Representatives covering a wide spectrum of the food industry met Oct. 21 with Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer to discuss package size requirements for a major food assistance program.

In an effort led by the Juice Products Association, Mr. Schafer and other senior U.S. Department of Agriculture staff members were asked for greater flexibility in packaging products that qualify for inclusion under the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), a program targeting low-income women, infants and children up to age five. More than 8 million people receive WIC benefits each month.

For products to qualify, they must conform in a number of different ways, including package size. For example, for infant juice, only 32-oz bottles are covered under the WIC program.

Other groups present at the meeting were the Independent Bakers Association, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the Food Marketing Institute, the National Fisheries Institute, the USA Rice Federation, the American Bakers Association and the Tortilla Industry Association.

Each representative brought a sample of their food and explained how revised WIC rules affected them. The Independent Bakers brought a 15-oz package of whole wheat buns to demonstrate not all packaging conforms to the 16-oz rule for WIC.

Nicholas A. Pyle, president of the Independent Bakers Association, said, "All those present from the food industry expressed our willingness to collaborate with the U.S.D.A. to find workable solutions to ensure continued choice of foods to participants under the revised WIC program, meeting the monthly allowance whenever possible given current package sizes for our foods."

Mr. Pyle said the meeting went well.

"Clearly, the secretary and his staff, when presented with information on container sizes from several different parts of the food industry, especially baking, realized the significance of the program," he said. "They were likewise willing to discuss possible solutions that industry was willing to offer that would not require any new rulemaking."

One possible solution discussed, Mr. Pyle said, would allow participants to purchase foods so that over a period of months, on average, the maximum allowance was being met, rather than on a monthly basis.

The meeting was not the first time the package size issue has been brought to the attention of the U.S.D.A. In September, the Department sent guidance giving states greater latitude in establishing qualifying specifications. The I.B.A. said the U.S.D.A. backed off from a December 2007 rule that restricts bakers to loaves that are either 1 lb or 2 lbs for the WIC program, noting that many bakers do not produce whole wheat bread that is either 16 oz or 32 oz.

The October follow-up meeting reflected a sense that the Department had not "pro-actively communicated" this guidance and that additional steps were necessary to help the states make further changes in guidelines, Mr. Pyle said.

He said the group will follow up with Eric Steiner who is associate administrator of the Department’s Food & Nutrition Service special nutrition programs.

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