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Mon, Dec. 09

State sees children's obesity drop after WIC required healthy foods

A local farmer’s market event provides many opportunities to purchase natural, fresh foods. Fresh fruits and vegetables may have helped the obesity rate go down for many recipients of the WIC nutrition program. (Courier file photo)

A local farmer’s market event provides many opportunities to purchase natural, fresh foods. Fresh fruits and vegetables may have helped the obesity rate go down for many recipients of the WIC nutrition program. (Courier file photo)

The obesity rate among young Arizona children in the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition program declined from 2010 to 2016 after the program changed its rules to require more healthful food, a new report says.

But Arizona was hardly alone.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report said 41 states saw childhood obesity drop following the changes to WIC’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program. Arizona’s decrease — from 15% of kids in the program who were considered obese in 2010 to 12.1% in 2016 — was seventh-biggest among states.

Experts say a 2009 change to foods eligible under the WIC program that increased access to fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and reduced-fat milk, among other items, is largely responsible for the “really encouraging” results.

“It’s a start,” said Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association.

Humble added that the 2009 change was the “biggest factor” in the childhood obesity decline in Arizona and the nation. Nationally, the obesity rate among 2- to 4-year-olds in WIC, the group studied in the report, fell from 15.9% to 13.9%.

Yavapai County Community Health Services (YCCHS) WIC Director Carrie Wright agreed with Humble in his assessment of the effectiveness of the WIC program’s changes. In addition, Wright said obesity and overweight rates in Yavapai County are generally lower when compared with other Arizona counties.

“The WIC food package has changed throughout the years to not only improve the health of children, but to provide a wider arrange of healthier options,” Wright added. “Recent updates have included the addition of regular and Greek yogurt, whole grains and increased fruits and vegetables.”

Wright said participation in the WIC program in Yavapai County follows the national trend, which has been decreasing each year for the past several years and impacts funding.

In January, YCCHS officials will be rolling out a new program, “WIC in a Click,” which they hope will help WIC participants by offering them face-to-face appointments via Zoom technology (similar to Skype or FaceTime) on the Internet.

“There’s a variety of reasons [why participation in WIC has declined], including access to clinics, government stigma and busy lives,” Wright said. “There are plenty of families living at 185% of the poverty level [requirement for receiving assistance] who choose not to participate or don’t realize they qualify for the program.”

People receiving benefits from the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and/or the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) programs are automatically eligible to receive WIC benefits, she added.

“WIC is more than a supplemental food program; it provides education and support to families,” Wright said.

Arizona State University professor Maureen McCoy, a specialist in nutrition and childhood obesity, welcomed the drop in obesity numbers, but also noted that a decline in WIC participation over the period could have an impact on the data.

Enrollment fell in all states but North Carolina, the report said, with the number of Arizona 2- to 4-year-olds in the program dropping from 72,933 in 2010 to 58,054 in 2016.

“A lot of people would like to enroll in SNAP because it’s a little easier,” McCoy said, referring to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. “There’s not as much paperwork and then you don’t have the requirements on what you can buy and check-ins with nutritionists.”

To be eligible for WIC, participants must live in the state where they apply for the benefit, have household income less than 185% of the federal poverty level or be eligible for other federal assistance programs.

While the Trump administration has proposed revising SNAP eligibility requirements, experts agreed that WIC is safe — for now.

“WIC definitely has a lot of support because it is such a vulnerable young population,” said Katherine Hempstead, senior policy adviser at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Hempstead said the 2009 WIC changes have helped, but are not solely responsible for the “sustained decrease” in childhood obesity rates.

“I don’t think we can attribute the decline in obesity to WIC, but it has done a lot of really important things that are helpful,” she said.

Hempstead is hopeful the downward trend in childhood obesity continues and urges decision-makers to acknowledge the importance of nutritional education in younger populations.

“A lot of eating habits are formed in early childhood, so it’s important to give them better food,” she said.

The CDC report said that while the decreases are a positive sign, “obesity prevalence remained high in most states in 2016,” and called for “multiple approaches” to deal with the issue.

McCoy said, in addition to a commitment to quality food, educating parents about the program is key to ensuring its continued success.

“A lot of people that could qualify for WIC aren’t doing it,” she said. “We haven’t solved obesity in any way, shape or form.”

Humble was director of the Arizona Department of Health in 2009 and supervised the state’s implementation of the rule, which he said was the first change to the WIC food package in decades. He said more needs to be done, but the results in the new report are encouraging.

“For most of my career, it just kept getting worse, and now you can see that some of the interventions that happened are starting to at least make some progress,” he said.

Courier reporter Doug Cook contributed to this report.

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