Less than half of eligible households with children from one to two years old participate in the Women Infant and Children supplemental nutrition programs, a new U.S. Department of Agriculture study finds. With fruit and vegetable vouchers now in place for WIC food packages, that is leaving millions of dollars in benefits and fresh produce retail sales unrealized.

The 45-page Dec. 29 USDA Economic Research Service study, authored by Alison Jacknowitz and Laura Tiehen, looked at WIC participation and reasons why some eligible participants leave the program early.

In fiscal 2008, WIC participants totaled about 8.7 million. USDA statistics show about half of WIC participants were children between one and five years old, with women representing about a quarter of participants another quarter accounted for by infants.

The 47% participation rate for households with children from one to two is a big drop off compared to eligible households with infants (birth to one year old) WIC participation, which ranks at 79.1% of the eligible population, the USDA said.

If another 4 million children were added as WIC participants, fruit and vegetable vouchers totaling $24 million per month would be issued to those families. .

One reason for the drop in WIC participation, Tiehen said, is the reduced value of the children’s supplemental food package for children over one year old compared to the infant food package. In particular, moms who do not breastfeed seem to be leaving the WIC program faster than moms who do.

In addition, Tiehen said moms and children with higher incomes (though still WIC eligible) tend to exit the program at a faster rate than lower income moms. In general, the study found that some moms are confused about the eligibility status and others concluded it wasn’t worth the trouble to become certified for the benefits. Recertifying for WIC benefits is required when a child turns 1 year old.

Tiehen said there was not a lot regional difference in WIC participation level, though rural participants were more likely to stay in the WIC program after children turned one year old.

Study details

Tiehen said the study looked children between one and two years old and found that about half of their families did not take advantage of the WIC food packages. Tiehen said the study did not cover the period during which fruit and vegetable vouchers have been offered as part of the supplemental nutrition packages.

WIC fruit and vegetable vouchers — initially set at $8 per month for moms (later increased by Congress to $10) and $6 per month for children — became a part of food packages in all 50 states on Oct. 1 in 2009.

“We would expect to see some changes and hopefully the idea of the vouchers is to bring healthier fresh food and it is also the hope we can pump up participation among eligible children,” Tiehen said.