Jim Weill had the opportunity for a one-on-one conversation with USDA Secretary Vilsack last week to talk about the importance of federal nutrition programs. We are  posting excerpts from the conversation here on FRAC’s blog, FRAC Chat.

Jim Weill: Just as school meal nutrition standards have been improved, WIC standards were overhauled earlier. Can you tell us about the health impact of those WIC standards?

Secretary Vilsack: President Obama had very specific instructions for me when he asked me to serve as USDA Secretary: make sure our nation’s children are well fed.

One of the first steps was to implement the new WIC package. We focused on creating a package that offers a diversity of fruits and vegetables for WIC participants. We know from research that it makes a difference. Millions of needy children in this country age 0 to 5 are participating in WIC and we know that giving them access to a variety of fruits and vegetables, that they may not otherwise have access to, will make a difference over the course of their life.

One of the challenges with WIC has been the way in which it is implemented. WIC moms are able to secure the package, but essentially they have very little flexibility in terms of when and how, within a given month, to access the program. The package pretty much comes in one shot, and it’s difficult to keep fruits and vegetables stored for a month. That’s why we looked at ways in which we could create greater flexibility in the WIC program in order to allow more choice. One way we can do that is by transitioning WIC from its current structure to an EBT card, similar to the SNAP program.

Congress provided $220 million for the WIC EBT transition, and we are going to work over the next four years to expand a pilot that has been quite successful in creating flexibility within the program. This will allow WIC participants to purchase portions of the package within a month so they can essentially have access to fresh fruits and vegetables throughout the entire month as opposed to the beginning or middle of the month, or whenever the WIC package is purchased. This is very consistent with all of the steps we are taking to make our nutrition programs easier and more accessible.

We have a similar effort in our summer feeding program, which is key for youngsters who are not able to access school meals when school is not in session. This created an opportunity in the president’s budget to expand an EBT system for summer meals, which is working well in our pilot project.

Whether children during the summer months, or at school, a SNAP family, or senior citizens, we are looking at comprehensive approaches to create better access to nutrition programs.