USDA WIC Program Makes Plant-Based Dairy Accessible To 7 Million Women and Children


As the winds of change sweep across the nation’s nutrition programs, the USDA’s latest gust has brought plant-based yogurts and cheeses onto the WIC menu, delighting nearly seven million American women and children who participate in the program. This dairy drama isn’t just about offering lactose-free laughs; it’s a serious leap toward inclusive nutrition.

For the first time in a decade, the U.S. government has revamped its nutrition assistance program for women and children, known as WIC, with a focus on increasing access to fruits and vegetables while reducing dairy allocations. The revised guidelines also incorporate plant-based alternatives such as milk, yogurt, and cheese, aligning with the initiative to use food as a form of medicine by meeting specific nutrient requirements.

The WIC program, which stands for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, offers federal grants to states. These grants help provide supplemental foods, healthcare referrals, and nutrition education for low-income pregnant women, new mothers, and children up to five years old who are at nutritional risk.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio

Initiated in November 2022, the proposed changes received substantial public input with over 17,000 comments. These modifications, rooted in the most recent scientific insights from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) and the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, are designed to improve nutritional security and enhance maternal and child health, while also increasing the flexibility of the program for its participants.

They are set to impact approximately 6.6 million people—equating to 53% of all infants born in the U.S. The updates notably increase the provisions for whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, and grains, and significantly enhance the availability of non-dairy options like plant-based yogurts, cheeses, and milk, ensuring a broader and more inclusive approach to meeting nutritional needs.

“These participant-centered changes will strengthen WIC by ensuring the foods participants receive reflect the latest nutrition science to support healthy eating and the brightest futures,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement.

The program now includes an array of plant-based dairy products, catering to diverse dietary needs and preferences, including those with lactose intolerance or ethical and environmental concerns regarding animal products.

Permanent increases in the quantity and variety of fruits and vegetables in the food packages aim to encourage healthier eating patterns. The USDA’s commitment to diversifying WIC’s food options extends to grains with the addition of quinoa, blue cornmeal, and teff, ensuring that cultural and personal dietary preferences are respected.

In a statement published by the Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA), Marjorie Mulhull, senior director of policy, comments, “We commend the USDA for expanding the plant-based options available for WIC participants, including plant-based yogurts and cheeses. These updates provide much-needed flexibility to WIC participants who seek out plant-based options for any number of reasons: health, environmental concerns, ethical reasons, and taste.”

Cindy Long, Administrator of the Food and Nutrition Service, highlighted the potential lifelong benefits these changes bring to WIC participants. “For the 6.6 million moms, babies, and young children who participate in WIC – and the millions more eligible to participate – these improvements to our food packages have the potential to make positive, life-long impacts on health and well-being.”

State agencies overseeing WIC have a two-year timeframe to roll out these updates. This period will allow for careful integration of the new guidelines to ensure that they meet the diverse needs of the communities they serve, making the transition smooth and effective.

These updates underscore the USDA’s dedication to enhancing the nutritional quality and accessibility of the WIC program, ensuring it remains a vital resource for supporting maternal and child health across the United States.