Pixies for the People: A new WIC Local Food Line

tangmanpicCan you hear the chanting?

"Pixies for the People!"

How about the drums? "Pixies for the People!"

Pixie Tangerines, that is, not Tinker Bell.

When I first learned of this initiative to provide free fruit, fresh from the farm for WIC recipients, I found myself hollering "Pixies for the People!" in pure '60s protest style. I could practically taste the amazingly sweet and delectable pixies that farmer Jim Churchill donated to a Community Food Security Coalition conference I attended a few years ago. (That's him in the photo.) Oh, to live in the Ojai Valley in early April!

The pixies giveaway is part of a new program called the WIC Local Food Line, which launches today at three Los Angeles County WIC-only stores. Although Prime Time Nutrition, Mother's Nutritional Center, and Fiesta Plaza are limited by law to giving away a maximum of $2 worth, or about about 5 to 6 pixies, per person, this new distribution model demonstrates a seismic shift in providing fresh, healthy good food for all.

You're shrugging. How can $2 of pixies equal an earthquake in food policy, you ask?

Quick WIC

WIC's full name is the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children. Its purpose is "to safeguard the health of low-income women, infants, and children up to age 5" by providing nutritious foods to supplement diets, information on healthy eating, and referrals to health care. In California, 82 WIC agencies serve 1.4 million women, infants and children each month at over 600 sites throughout the State, according to the California Department of Public Health.

Through the unprecedented program starting today, these select WIC-only vendors are not just giving away fresh fruits and vegetables, they are sourcing that food locally and directly from California's small family farmers in the Ojai Valley. They have chosen to do so as a broader effort to educate and expose their consumers to the value, quality and taste of local foods.

The WIC Local Food Line was created by Vanessa Zajfen from the Center for Food & Justice to deliver high-quality, nutrition-dense foods for low-income populations. Think about the economic benefit to growers like Jim Churchill and the 37 other Ojai Pixie Growers as a result of the bulk purchase by WIC today. Imagine the economic boost to farmers if all of the 46,000 merchants nationwide that accept WIC vouchers got involved in the WIC Local Food Line!

As the first farm-to-WIC direct distribution project, the Pixies project capitalizes on innovative adaptations of the retail Harvest of the Month (HOTM) program and the new WIC food package that must be implemented by October 1, 2009. (Two states, Delaware and New York, have opted out.) The revised policy mandates that WIC stores must supply fruits and vegetables if they are to continue to be an approved WIC vendor and thus redeem WIC coupons.

Starting last fall, the WIC program's food package was updated for the first time in 30 years.  It now includes a monetary benefit for the purchase of fruits and vegetables. This will be the first time WIC customers can buy fresh fruits and vegetables from WIC vendors using their WIC benefits. Mothers will get $8 a month of cash value vouchers; kids get $6.

It is easy to confuse the existing WIC Farmers Market Program and the new WIC program food package that will allow for the purchase of fruits and vegetables; they are separate programs. As I understand it, farmers markets that currently accept WIC fruit and vegetable vouchers are accepting the coupons for the WIC Farmers Market Program, not for the regular WIC program.  The WIC Farmers Market Program is a great program, but its growth potential and access to low-income participants are limited.

This is where the WIC Local Food Line can take full advantage of the new WIC guidelines by supporting local farmers and providing high-quality fresh produce as they have done today.

From Pixies to Policy: Why organic choices are excluded for certain WIC-authorized food groups

Let's step into one of the three stores participating in Los Angeles. The Mother's Nutritional Center is a privately owned business located next to a WIC center in South Los Angeles. Imagine a young mother walks in: She sees a colorful, clean room with a TV displaying nutrition education and a counter behind which are all the food products. Taking a number, she waits to be served by the staff. The choices are limited to WIC-approved items such as milk, cheese, dry beans, canned beans, cereal, cream of wheat, bread, limes, onions, chipotles, and formula.

In California the WIC authorized foods — which are determined by the state not the vendors — exclude the following organic versions of these items:

  • milk
  • cheese
  • brown, organic, cage-free eggs
  • bread
  • cereal
  • beans
  • peanut butter
  • meat
  • baby formula

They do allow organic fruits, vegetables, and tofu. Not to seem ungrateful, but this is a rather gaping hole created in that seismic shift. How can we "safeguard the health" of our most vulnerable, low-income mothers and babies by excluding organic grains, milk, eggs, and meat?

If you are a regular reader of the Ethicurean, I don't need to convince you of the personal and ecological health benefits of organic. But if you need some additional facts in your diet, read Dr. Alan Greene's  Why Organic is the Healthiest Choice for Kids as a start.

In defense of the federal WIC program, there's no prohibition on organic: instead there are maximum allowable reimbursement rates.  California has not made a policy decision to forbid organic, exactly, but rather most of the organic products don't fit within the maximum reimbursement rates in the WIC program. And in a discretionary program like WIC, in a populous state such as California, a marginally higher cost of even 3% to 5% can mean hundreds of thousands of low-income kids will not get served.

However, if we can make a cost argument that organic foods are not more expensive, then we must make the case to the state agency.

In addition to cost, the categorical exclusion of organic is most likely due to the sheer volume of grocery store items that need to be approved.  With so many new products coming on and off the market, it is difficult for state agencies to keep up with them all.  Often, a state agency will approve the branded items that are widely available (see the approved cereal list).  This tends to exclude niche products, private label products, etc. even if they are price competitive.

OK, so we've got a long way to go to include other organic products, but let's celebrate the pixies.

Go ahead now, let's give a big shout-out for "Pixies for the People!" Don't hold back.

I heard through the WIC Local Food Line that avocados are up next, for May. And I'm hoping this catches on in my home state of Ohio, so we can do a similar rallying cry of PawPaws for the People in September.

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