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NCFC Comments to USDA on WIC Proposed Rule

Letters
February 21, 2023

WIC Administration, Benefits, and Certification Branch Policy Division
Food and Nutrition Service
P.O. Box 2885
Fairfax, Virginia 22031-0885

Re: Docket No. FNS-2022-0007 for Proposed Rule on “Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC): Revisions in the WIC Food Packages”

Dear Sir or Madam,

We appreciate this opportunity to submit comments in response to the proposed rule by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) posted in the Federal Register November 21, 2022, entitled “Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC): Revisions in the WIC Food Packages.” We understand the importance of the WIC program and tailoring the product offerings for the targeted population to ensure they are receiving the nutrients for that cycle of life. However, we do have concerns regarding portions of the regulation that may exclude or reduce certain food products under the current proposal and in turn be counterproductive to helping program participants reach their dietary needs.

Background

Since 1929, NCFC has been the voice of America’s farmer-owned cooperatives. NCFC members include regional and national cooperatives, which in turn consist of nearly 2,000 local farmer- owned cooperatives across the country. Farmer cooperatives – businesses owned, governed, and controlled by farmers and ranchers – are an important part of the success of America’s agricultural supply chain.

NCFC has an extremely diverse membership, which we view as one of our sources of strength – our members span the country, supply nearly every agricultural input imaginable, drive innovation, develop new technologies, provide credit and related financial services, and market a wide range of commodities and value-added products. Our membership includes:
  • Marketing cooperatives – which handle, process and market virtually every commodity grown and produced in the United States.
  • Bargaining cooperatives – which bargain to help their farmer members obtain reasonable prices for the commodities they produce.
  • Farm supply cooperatives – those engaged in the manufacture, sale and/or distribution of farm supplies and inputs, as well as energy-related products, including ethanol and biodiesel.
  • Credit cooperatives – include the banks and associations of the cooperative Farm Credit System that provide farmers and their cooperatives with a competitive source of credit and other financial services, including export financing.

 This breadth of diversity means that farmer co-ops span the entire food and agriculture supply chain from the farm gate all the way to the grocery store aisle – and our co-ops are proud to serve the nation’s families the highest quality foods. NCFC supports and is in alignment with the comments submitted by several of our member cooperatives.

Key Recommendations

Maintain the current 128-ounce monthly prescription for children ages one to five and revise the mother’s prescription to 128 ounces to better align with ready-to-serve juice category offerings.

According to the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), more than 80 percent of Americans have dietary patterns that are low in fruits and vegetables. Importantly, the DGA also indicate that one cup of 100% juice is equivalent to one serving of whole fruit. Further, the Scientific Report of the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee acknowledges that juice delivers valuable nutrients; 100% juice not only contributes to hydration but can also “help people attain recommended nutrient intake goals.” 100% fruit juice is a nutrient-dense beverage and can provide nutrients like potassium, vitamin C, and folate, as well as health-promoting bioactive components including flavonoids without contributing to overweight, obesity or dental cavities in children. Adults who drink 100% juice tend to have lower body weights, lower body mass indexes and a 22% lower risk for being overweight or obese, and a 27% lower risk of metabolic syndrome compared to non-juice consumers. Additionally, there is evidence of a correlative effect of juice consumption and diet overall: children and adults who drink juice tend to eat more whole fruit overall and have better quality diets than those who do not drink juice. In fact, drinking juice in younger years can have long term dietary benefits. A Boston University study demonstrated that drinking 100% fruit juice early in life was associated with healthier diets later in life without adversely impacting weight. Consumption of 100% fruit juice during the preschool years was associated with higher intakes of whole fruit and total fruit as well as better diet quality through childhood and into middle adolescence. In short, 100% juice complements rather than competes with fruit. Lastly, Congress tripled funding for the WIC Cash Value Benefit (CVB), so cutting juice to fund a CVB increase is unnecessary. Balancing good nutrition and understanding consumer behavior make a better WIC Food Package. In conclusion, despite the vast body of evidence illustrating the numerous health benefits associated with 100% juice consumption, FNS is seeking to eliminate 100% juice from the Postpartum Food Package VI and to decrease the overall amount of juice permitted for WIC purchases (by limiting purchases to 64 ounces). Given that most Americans are not meeting their recommended fruit and vegetable intake, the proposal appears contrary to the objective of improving nutrition. FNS should be increasing the availability and accessibility of all forms of fruits and vegetables, rather than reducing levels. There is no evidence-based rationale for the juice changes in the proposal.

Maintain the current maximum monthly allowance of milk. Allow flavored milk and yogurts as part of the WIC program to help promote nutrient-rich foods. Support expanding flexibility and access for dairy products.

According to the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines, about 90 percent of the U.S. population does not meet dairy recommendations. The percent of Americans who drink milk as a beverage on a given day is 65 percent among young children, 34 percent in adolescents, and about 20 percent for adults. Reducing and limiting the number of nutrient dense dairy products in the WIC food packages could be counterproductive to the DGA recommendations to increase dairy consumption.

Milk is a good or excellent source of 13 essential nutrients. These nutrients include three of four nutrients of concern for underconsumption identified by the DGA – vitamin D, calcium and potassium. For children 2-18 years old, milk is the top dietary source of all three of these nutrients, and it is the top source of calcium and vitamin D for both children and adults. In fact, dietary patterns that include low-fat and fat-free dairy are associated with lower risk of all-cause mortality, cardiovascular mortality, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers, according to the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. Flavored milk and yogurt do contain added sugars, but as the American Academy of Pediatrics has pointed out, there is a balance to be struck between limiting added sugars and promoting nutrient-rich foods. The AAP’s policy statement supports the addition of small amounts of sugars to nutrient-dense foods like milk in order to increase children’s consumption. A study published last year used national dietary intake data to show that the nutritional benefits of flavored milk outweighed the added sugar content. While we have grave concerns that FNS is seeking to reduce monthly allowances of milk, NCFC does support some of the changes to the dairy allotments, which include requiring the authorization of lactose-free milk, increasing yogurt substitution amounts for milk, allowing reduced-fat yogurts for 1-year-old children without restrictions, and additional flexibilities for yogurt size containers. As noted in the proposed rule and the 2017 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) report, these provide participants with additional flexibility and choice to select the dairy options that best fit their lifestyle. This, in turn, increases participants’ access to vital nutrients and the related health benefits. Requiring lactose-free milk and increasing yogurt and cheese substitutions are important steps to ensuring dairy and its nutrients are accessible for all WIC participants. Lactose-free milk has the same 13 essential nutrients as regular milk but without the lactose, which can be difficult to digest for some individuals. Yogurt and cheese are also low-lactose options. FNS is to be commended for providing guaranteed options to individuals who are lactose-intolerant, which allow more people to benefit from dairy’s comprehensive and unique nutrient package. In total, in order to meet the DGA recommendations to increase dairy consumption FNS should be increasing the availability and accessibility of dairy products, rather than reducing levels of certain dairy products. Lastly, as the Administration moves forward with several proposed rules impacting the nutrition requirements across various federal programs, it is imperative that these requirements be consistent with not only each other, but with the DGA. Consistency is foundational for consumers to better understand nutritional guidance and to adapt healthier and more nutrient dense eating patterns. Additionally, consistency across federal programs helps ensure food manufacturers are best serving each program whether that be children in the school meals program, expectant mothers or growing toddlers, or every consumer that walks the aisles of a grocery store.

Conclusion

WIC has been proven to increase participants’ diet quality and lead to positive health outcomes. Decreasing access to the nutrients dairy foods and 100% juice provide in order to keep the program “supplemental” would only be detrimental to participants. NCFC appreciates the opportunity to submit comments and is hopeful USDA will return to the current levels of dairy and 100% juice in the WIC package in the final rule.

Sincerely,

Charles F. Conner
President & CEO

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