Thursday, April 9, 2009

I have a pet peeve...

I cannot, for the life of me, understand why some people regard organic foods as luxuries. I understand the price of some organic foods make them cost-prohibitive for many people. However, I don’t understand why food grown the way it’s supposed to be grown, free of some of the harmful additives commonly found in food, should somehow be reserved for only the most affluent of us.

For those who may not know, there is a program by the Food and Nutrition Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture called the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC. Their mission, according to their web site is “to safeguard the health of low-income women, infants, & children up to age 5 who are at nutritional risk by providing nutritious foods to supplement diets, information on healthy eating, and referrals to health care.” WIC is actually a very wonderful program that provides nutrition education and encourages new mothers to breastfeed. It also has a Farmer’s Market Nutrition Program that encourages the consumption of locally-grown foods from small farmers. It fills in the gaps for many women and children who may not otherwise have access to nutritional food and information.

For all the good it does, however, WIC has some shortcomings. It is a program of the Food and Nutrition Service, yet each state has its own individual guidelines on how to administer it. Currently, organic foods are not approved for WIC in most states. Some states may approve only certain organic foods, such as organic milk. My state, Maryland, currently does not include ANY organic foods on their WIC-approved list. While some state agencies have argued that organic foods are no better for you than non-organic foods, most states cite cost as the determining factor of whether or not organics are included in WIC food packages. And if you’re vegan, well, you may be even more out of luck because soy and rice milk are not on the approved list at all. I cannot stress the amount of good WIC does for the health of women and children, but I think they’ve dropped the ball here.

To fail to include organic choices on the WIC- approved list of foods is to tell “low-income” families they do not have the option of optimizing their health and well-being. Why should WIC families be excluded from potentially the most beneficial of foods, especially when there is research to support the assertion that organics are in fact healthier dietary choices? How can you tell a mother that because of her socio-economic status she cannot give her children every possible nutritional advantage? Many WIC families also receive food stamps, which can thankfully be used for organics and non-organics. But depending on your allotment amount, your food stamps may still not be enough cover the cost of organic choices. So, again, families are limited in their options.

Considering that one in 10 African-American mothers receive WIC benefits (as opposed to one in 16 Caucasian women), I’m even more concerned. Not only are organic choices off the table for most of these moms, but studies have suggested that WIC counselors are also less-likely to encourage African-American mothers to breastfeed. Therein lay the suggestion that WIC might even be systematically marginalizing a segment of the population in a very fundamental way – after all, if you don’t have your health, what have you? I know that’s a strong statement, but the fact remains that WIC could do a lot better by mothers and children, especially those who are African-American.

I’ll continue my thoughts a little later because I’m getting a little irritated just thinking about this. Perhaps we can vibe in the future about how to light a fire under the proverbial behind of WIC to get some of these things changed.

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