Government nutrition program paying for healthier foods
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A governmentfunded supplemental nutrition program for low-income mothers and their young children is offering more healthy foods for clients, beginning today. "For the first time in about 35 years, the food package is changing," said Joan Bowsher, program director for the Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, program. In the past, WIC recipients received items such as milk, eggs, cheese, cereal, juice, peanut butter, dried beans and peas, and formula. Beginning Monday, clients will be able to use vouchers to buy soy beverages, organic milk, whole grains, canned beans and peas, baby foods, fresh vegetables and fruits, and frozen vegetables. Mary Pittaway, WIC director at the Mi s s o u l a Ci t y -Co u n t y He a l t h Department, said most participants are happy with the changes. "You could interview all the mothers, and probably the majority would say the one thing they need help with is helping their family eat more fruits and vegetables," she said. Last year in Montana, about 20,000 people participated in WIC each month. This year, more than 21,000 do, and officials say the demand appears to be growing. Bowsher said the wider selection likely will lead clients to spend more of each check. "We anticipate our food costs are going to be slightly higher because we Anticipate that participants will cash their benefits closer to 100 percent," Bowsher said. Most of the WIC clients shop at Albertsons, Safeway or Wal- Mart, which carry the foods WIC clients can buy. In general, grocery stores that participate must agree to carry most WIC items, because clients are given three checks each month and must buy all their items at one store. But a health food store in Missoula is dropping out of the program because it doesn't want to stock foods it considers unhealthy. Good Food Store manager Pam Clevenger said the WIC guidelines specify no free-range or organic eggs, disqualifying all the natural food store's eggs. Also, she said, the new rules call for no organic or natural peanut butter. "There are two instances right off the bat where they're requiring people to buy items we f e e l a r e ex t r eme l y unhealthy," she said. "For many, many years we have relaxed our standards in order to carry items that ordinarily you wouldn't find in a natural foods store." Organic or natural peanut butter is more expensive than other brands, and officials said budget constraints are limiting the number of healthy food clients can buy. "Because we have more people on the program and the cost of food has gone up, we've had to make decisions that feed the most people within our budget," said Bowsher. The Good Food Store is the only major store that's backing out of WIC.