In November 2022, the Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) announced a proposed rule to revise food packages for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) to make plant-based milk and yogurts more readily available to program participants. This update is in alignment with PBFA’s recommendation to the USDA, and demonstrates significant strides by the department to meet the dietary, cultural, and personal needs of the over six million Americans who receive essential WIC benefits.

As part of the process to advance the proposed rule, the USDA requested public comments on the availability of other plant-based beverages, like oat or almond milk, that meet the nutrient specifications of the WIC program, and today, PBFA submitted comments in strong support of the expanded offerings. 

WIC offerings should include nutritious, innovative plant-based foods

The market for plant-based milk, cheese, and yogurt has grown significantly in recent years, and the cutting-edge companies behind these innovations are carefully crafting these foods to provide ample protein, as well as omega fatty acids and other important nutrients. In addition to expanding approved product lists, PBFA also encourages the USDA to work with leaders and experts in the plant-based food industry to inform nutrient requirements for plant-based milks and yogurts. 

To ensure efficiency in enabling access to innovative plant-based options, PBFA recommends that the USDA create a process for WIC (which could also be applied to other federal feeding programs) that facilitates the approval of new plant-based products on a rolling basis as they meet federal nutrient specifications. A rolling pathway for approval will allow nutritious plant-based milks to become widely available for WIC participants over time, and allows the department to be more responsive to constituent needs instead of delaying further changes until the next federal update. Additionally, state-based agencies should have the option to allow plant-based milks that meet nutrient specifications, as suggested for yogurt alternatives. Federal approval is key to enabling these pathways to consumers, and can expedite shifts that demonstrate the USDA’s commitment to meeting the needs of the ever-evolving U.S. population and WIC participants—many of whom are increasingly consuming plant-based foods, often for health reasons such as dairy allergies or lactose intolerance.

Pathways for equity

As noted in our comment, the last updates to the WIC Food Packages were implemented in 2014. This timeline is not sustainable: WIC participants should not have to wait another decade to access a reasonable variety of plant-based options. Further, creating federal pathways to increase consumer access to plant-based foods is an important step in fostering equity and inclusion across communities.

“Every effort must be made to avoid stigma and a situation where program participants are excluded from purchasing products they prefer among food categories offered by WIC,” PBFA Vice President of Policy and Food Systems Nicole Negowetti stated in the comments. “With lactose intolerance affecting 30-50 million Americans, including 80 percent of all African-Americans and Native Americans, accessibility to plant-based milk, yogurt and cheeses is an imperative for the relevance of the WIC program.”

Fostering collaboration

While the inclusion of soy-based milks and yogurts in WIC packages is a solid start, restrictions on other plant-based alternatives and package size availability are significant barriers to families in accessing adequate quantities of approved plant-based options. PBFA looks forward to collaborating with the USDA to inform and advance the latest proposed rule, and to further expand pathways that enable all Americans to enjoy healthier and more sustainable plant-based foods. 

To read our full comment, click here.