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Known as WIC, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children has been around since the 1970s. Changes in 2009 added more fruits and vegetables, which helped reduce some birth complications, the researchers found.
"Despite improvements in programs like WIC, our country still has large health disparities between rich and poor," said lead author Dr. Rita Hamad, an assistant professor of family and community medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.
She described the 2009 revisions as "modest" and said there is "still a lot of room for improvement."
"Our society values families and kids, so this is a policy people can get behind," Hamad said in a university news release.
For the study, researchers examined how the changes affected more than 2 million babies born between 2007 and 2012 in California to mothers on WIC. They compared these babies with those born to women not receiving WIC.
The changes to WIC included a monthly food allotment of $10 to buy fresh fruits and vegetables, instead of only fruit juice. Participants using their allotment to buy bread and milk were required to choose whole grain and low-fat varieties.
Some women, however, gained less than they should have. No changes were seen in gestational diabetes or preterm birth, the researchers said.
For babies, the benefits were less, but still positive. They were more likely to be born later. They were also more likely to be of normal weight and size.
"We saw these improvements in high-risk moms and babies, even with these relatively modest improvements in the nutritional content of the WIC food packages," she said.
No changes were seen in the number of very low birth weight babies, the length of time in the hospital, or readmission to the hospital in the first year after birth.
The study dovetails with renewed attention to poor maternal health outcomes for low-income women and a competing push to cut social welfare programs. Researchers said the results show that WIC has benefitted millions of women and their newborns.
"This shows that there are social policy levers that can affect millions of people at once," Hamad said.
The report was published online July 1 in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.
-- Steven Reinberg
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