Kenny Lin, MD, MPH
Posted on September 19, 2022
Food insecurity is increasingly recognized as a modifiable social determinant of health. The American Academy of Family Physicians has endorsed "sustained funding for evidence-based policies and programs to eliminate disparities in healthy food access, including ... the Special Supplemental Nutritional Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)." In a 2019 editorial about interventions to reduce maternal mortality, Drs. Katy Kozhimannil and Andrea Westby recommended postpartum screening for food insecurity. But how strong is the evidence that WIC improves maternal and child health?
Since 2012, American Family Physician's Implementing AHRQ Effective Health Care Reviews feature has summarized dozens of primary care-relevant systematic reviews from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality's Effective Health Care Program with accompanying clinical commentaries. A team of investigators in this program recently reviewed maternal and child outcomes associated with WIC and published a synopsis of their report in Annals of Internal Medicine. Investigators identified 82 studies that examined associations between WIC participation and maternal, birth, infant, and child health outcomes.
Based on direct evidence from 49 studies, they concluded that WIC participation likely reduces the incidence of preterm birth, low birth weight, and infant mortality. Lower strength of evidence suggested WIC is associated with less inadequate gestational weight gain and alcohol use and better diet quality during pregnancy, and it may increase child preventive care visits and immunizations. WIC was not associated with differences in breastfeeding rates or premature (before 4 months) introduction of solid foods. Children of families receiving WIC had better diet quality, increased household purchasing of healthy foods compared to less healthy foods and beverages, and higher cognitive development than WIC-eligible children not receiving benefits. There was insufficient evidence that WIC reduced childhood obesity or affected health status or risk of hospitalization.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) found that food insecurity in households with children declined to its lowest rate in two decades in 2021, despite the negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the economy. The nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities observed:
About 10.2 percent of U.S. households were food insecure in 2021, meaning they struggled to afford enough food for an active, healthy life year-round. That the rate held steady during the pandemic — when accounting for statistical noise it’s not significantly different from the 10.5 percent rate for 2019 and 2020 — is a testament to robust relief measures policymakers enacted. These include Economic Impact Payments, an expanded Child Tax Credit, improved unemployment insurance, and expanded food assistance, along with [the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program]'s built-in ability to respond to increased need.
On the negative side, food insecurity increased from 2020 to 2021 in households without children and for women and older people living alone. Households headed by Black, Hispanic, and American Indian / Alaska Native persons were more likely to experience food insecurity than other households. Finally, the expiration of temporary pandemic emergency relief measures, such as free meals for all children attending public schools, may worsen food insecurity in families ineligible for WIC.
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