Food assistance programs do not foster access to nutritious, culturally acceptable foods

19NayHtooGEE, Derek Gee, Buffalo News

By Alex Judelsohn

Published May 12, 2017

Buffalo's diverse populations must be considered when designing public assistance programs. Diverse diets do not always include whole-grain bread, infant formula, baby food, and milk, foods chosen through a "rigorous science-based process".

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) offers monetary assistance to individuals and families that fall within certain income guidelines to purchase food. In complement, the federally funded Women Infant and Children (WIC) program provides food to “low-income pregnant, breastfeeding, non-breastfeeding postpartum women, and infants and children up to five years of age who are at nutritional risk”. Unlike SNAP, where participants have relatively broad freedom to choose which edibles they buy, WIC is used to purchase specific foods identified by the WIC program. In 2009, due to recommendations from the Institute of Medicine, the WIC food package was revised to include ten dollars each month toward the purchase of fresh fruits and vegetables, a step in the right direction, but this allocation is hardly enough for a month’s worth of nutritious produce. Although WIC was created to help families receive nutritious foods, the processes is more complicated than necessary, especially for Buffalo’s increasing foreign-born population and may result in unintended consequences, such as nutrition deficiencies, food waste, and system inefficiency.

Since 2003, more than 10,000 refugees from around the globe resettled in the Buffalo area. Refugee women may be dependent upon the federally funded Women Infant and Children (WIC) program when they first arrive in Buffalo, and, because of the large geographical and cultural differences in their home countries – from Myanmar, to Iraq, to Somalia and elsewhere – cultural preferences and program options may not align.

The WIC program is meant to supply low-income women and children with foods they typically lack. These foods have been chosen based on a “rigorous science-based process” to include whole-grain bread, infant formula and baby food, and milk. This scientific process does not consider the diverse traditional diets present in populations across the United States and in Buffalo, particularly immigrants and refugees. Other WIC participants, too, may not want all the foods listed, and would benefit from non-listed foods.

One strength of the New York State Department of Health is that it provides WIC Food Guides in multiple languages. However, not all WIC participants – whether U.S. born or foreign born – are literate.  Additionally, the purchasing process can be confusing. For example, certain store-brand cereals can be purchased, but each store has a different name for essentially the same product: “Oat Square,” “Crisp Oat Squares,” “Crunchy Oat Squares,” and “Oat Crisps.” Name-brand products in the same location with similar names and packaging, and which might not be WIC eligible, add to the confusion.

As the United States population continues to diversify, the WIC program needs to consider the diets of foreign-born participants, as well as American-born ethnic minorities, and the logistical challenges they encounter in utilizing the program.