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USDA program keeps extra COVID-era money for fruits, veggies

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U.S. agriculture officials proposed changes Thursday to the federal program that helps pay the grocery bills for pregnant women, babies and young children that includes keeping a bump in payments for fresh fruits and vegetables allowed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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The update also includes adding more whole grains, canned fish and non-dairy options to their shopping carts. The effort is aimed at expanding the number and type of healthy foods available to families who get assistance from the Agriculture Department’s program known as WIC, officials said.

The revisions would make permanent payments authorized by Congress during the COVID-19 pandemic that increased vouchers for fruits and vegetables to $25 a month for children ages 1 to 5 and to $49 a month for breastfeeding women.

“This increase in fruits and vegetables has really made it attractive for families to have their children in the program longer,” said Geraldine Henchy, director of the nonprofit Food Research and Action center, who applauded the changes. “Kids really love fruit.”

More than 6.2 million pregnant women, mothers, babies and young children participate in the program annually. The federal government pays about $5 billion a year to run the program, which is administered through states and other jurisdictions. The Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children provides vouchers to mothers and children who qualify and specifically lists the amount and types of food they can buy.

The proposed changes to WIC would also expand access to whole grains, encompassing foods from different cultures, including quinoa, blue cornmeal and teff, an ancient East African cereal grass. The plan also allows more non-dairy options, including soy-based yogurts and cheeses, and requires lactose-free milk to be offered.

More canned fish, such as tuna, would be available as well as easy-to-prepare canned beans, in addition to dried beans, officials said. The plan would also change the amount of infant formula provided to partially breastfed babies.

Increasing the voucher for fruits and vegetables to $25 a month during the pandemic has allowed Elizabeth Loya, 28, of Los Angeles, to encourage her 4-year-old daughter, Gisselle, to sample new foods.

“She tried Brussels sprouts and, two weeks ago, she tried asparagus,” Loya said. “She liked them.”

The proposed changes are based on a 2017 report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine and the national Dietary Guidelines for Americans. They’ll be evaluated after a three-month public comment period. ___

The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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