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FOOD HELP GETS HEALTHIER

Amid rising obesity, WIC adds more fruits and vegetables.

Facing an epidemic of childhood obesity, a government nutrition program is serving up healthier options tomillions of babies and children from low-income families. On the menu: more fruits and vegetables, whole grains and low-fat milk.

These are among the sweeping changes coming next month to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC. Nearly half of all children born in the United States participate.

Recipients in Florida can shop for specific food items at authorized grocery stores, a package that costs on average $62 per month. It is designed to improve children's nutrition during a critical period of development.

In making the first major nutritional update to WIC in nearly three decades, the government sought guidance from experts at the prestigious Institute of Medicine. The WIC changes may prove a model for a similar review of the school lunch and breakfast program, for which recommendations are expected next month.

Both efforts reflect a push to retool in light of new knowledge about food science, as well as the increasing menace of obesity.

"Childhood obesity is the common denominator," said Dr. Jennifer Miller, an assistant professor of pediatric endocrinology at the University of Florida. "It used to be under-nutrition, which is why these programs were started, and now it's over-nutrition."

The federally funded WIC program was developed in the 1970s, when health experts worried about children who were malnourished and deficient in key nutrients, such as iron, calcium and vitamins A and C.

Today, concerns center less on the need for calories and more on the lack of fruits and vegetables in the diets of many Americans. Before the overhaul, WIC's fruit and vegetable allowance was limited to a bag of carrots - and just for breastfeeding women.

Several moms at a WIC office in Tampa said Friday they're looking forward to the changes. Melanie Nuscis, 28, of Tampa, who has 4-year-old twins, was especially pleased about the addition of soy milk. "That's all we ever drink," she said. Her husband is diabetic, and as a nursing student, she has seen research that soy milk is better for children if diabetes runs in the family.

Yvonne Cliver, 23, who has a 3-year-old, a 2-year-old and a 3-week-old, likes the fact that the new plan will give her more of what her family needs, and less of what it doesn't.

Her children "eat vegetables like you wouldn't believe," she said. Under the old plan, "I was getting 16 gallons of milk a month - it was too much."

The changes, effective Oct. 1, shouldn't make the program more expensive to taxpayers, since the program in Florida will offer more of certain foods and less of others. Some highlights:

- Adding fresh, frozen or canned fruits and vegetables.

- Adding 100 percent whole wheat bread, brown rice or corn tortillas.

- Adding soy milk, and for cow's milk, emphasizing 1 percent low-fat or fat-free milk for women and children over age 2.

- Reducing eggs, cheese and juice; eliminating juice for infants.

- Reducing the allocation of baby formula for partially breastfed infants.

Another incentive to breastfeed: More food is provided for breastfeeding women, who have greater caloric needs. Florida WIC director Debbie Eibeck noted that the new package is consistent with the American Academy of Pediatrics infant feeding recommendations.

"What we're trying to do is change the foods that are offered by WIC to reinforce some of our key new food messages," Eibeck said. "Eat more fruits and vegetables. Decrease saturated fat and cholesterol intake. Increase your grains and fiber."

She stressed the effort to appeal to a more diverse population with corn tortillas, soy milk and canned beans. (Previously, only dried beans were offered.)

WIC serves pregnant, breastfeeding or postpartum women, infants and children up to age 5. In Florida, a family of four with a monthly income of $3,400 before taxes and deductions could qualify. Recipients must be residents, and a health professional needs to determine that they're at risk for poor nutrition.

WIC aims to make a long-term difference. Nutrition education is provided, and WIC works closely with health care providers, helping to screen, for example, for childhood immunizations.

"Now for the first time in a long time, the supplemental food package and the nutrient education that WIC provides will be congruent," said Gail Harrison, a professor at the UCLA School of Public Health who served on the Institute of Medicine committee that recommended the changes.

She stressed the importance of developing healthy habits and eating right during critical years.

"We know that the period from conception through the first few years of life are most important from a nutritional standpoint," she said. "That's where malnutrition does the most damage and good nutrition does the most benefit."

Times photojournalist Kathleen Flynn contributed to this report. Letitia Stein can be reached at lstein@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3322. For more health news, visit www.tampabay.com/health.

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FAST FACTS

New foods in WIC program

The WIC program is changing Oct. 1. Some highlights:

What's in: Vegetables and fruits; baby food - vegetables, fruits, meats; canned beans; soy milk; canned salmon; whole grains - 100% whole wheat bread, brown rice or corn tortillas

What's out: Juice for infants; tomato juice; blended juices

What's reduced: Amount of formula for partially breast-fed infants; eggs; milk; juice for women and children; cheese

Online: Learn more at www.floridawic.org.

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