The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infant, and Children (WIC) program is designed to provide food assistance to pregnant, postpartum and breastfeeding women, and infants and children up to age five if they meet the requirements for the program. Approximately eight million people nationwide use WIC each year. While any food assistance is helpful when the alternative is hunger, the quality of the food offered by the program has been under scrutiny.

People in the program receive vouchers for specific food items and there are no exceptions. WIC overhauled the food packages offered through the vouchers in 2007 to make them healthier. Fruits, vegetables and whole grains were added, and the amounts of milk, cheese and juice were reduced. Fat levels in milk were reduced, and the quantity of infant formula allowed was adjusted according to the age and needs of the infants served.

A study finds that children's diets early in life can a positive effect on their growth and reduce their risk of obesity.

To get a picture of the health impact of these changes to the WIC program, researchers from Tulane University, the University of California, Los Angeles, and the Los Angeles-based PHFE WIC, the nation’s largest local WIC agency, studied data from more than 180,000 children in the WIC program in Los Angeles County where over 400,000 residents are served by WIC each month and extensive health information has been compiled on participants since 2003.

Four groups of children were studied. The first group participated in the WIC program from birth to age four and received the overhauled food packages, while the second group received the old food packages. Group three had joined WIC at age two and participated under the new food package until they were four. The last group received the old food package between ages two and four.

The risk of obesity was 12 percent lower for boys and 10 percent lower for girls among the children who received the new food package from birth to age four, compared to children who got the old food package.

Growth trajectories for children receiving the new food package were healthier with the greatest difference at the age of six months, which suggests that the more nutritious package set the course for healthier growth in those early years.

Among the children who joined the WIC program at age of two, there was an 11 percent lower risk of obesity for boys who got the new food package, but the risk did not change for girls. The reason is not clear, but could be due to biological or sociocultural differences.

Pia Chaparro, of the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine and lead author of the study, said in a statement, “Our results suggest that changes in children's diet early in life could have a positive effect on their growth and reduce obesity risk, which could be informative for policymakers considering further improvements to the WIC program.”

The study is published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.