Because I have been very lucky in life, I didn't know much about WIC, the federal government's food aid program for children and mothers. But this article caught my eye today:
Beginning today, women and children who receive food vouchers through the federal government's WIC program will be able to use them to buy fresh fruits and vegetables.
OK, I thought, it's pretty ridiculous that in the Age of Obesity veggies were off the list until today. But the federal government is a slow moving beast. No surprise there. But then I saw this:
The changes also will allow recipients more than 8 million low-income pregnant women, new mothers and young children to use WIC funds for whole grains, canned beans, baby food and tortillas.
Previously, recipients could buy infant formula and cereal, eggs, milk, juice, peanut butter and dried beans. Nursing mothers could buy fresh carrots for their vitamin A content.
What a badly written article, I said to myself. This passage implies that only this strange list of foods are eligible. That can't be right. So I Googled. It took a while, since each state has its own subtly different list of allowed foods, but I found this:
Seriously? The only cheeses allowed: American, Cheddar, Monterey Jack, Mozzarella, and Swiss? And the only permissible low-fat cheese is Kraft brand only? (Yeah, I bet no lobbying dollar changed hands on that one.) Dried peas, not fresh? White eggs, not brown? Pineapple juice is in, cranberry is out? Why?! It's safe to assume that in most cases very, very poor mothers aren't going to blow all the cash on brie. (And if they do, well, maybe they had a good reason that week.)
This locked down, scientifically-outdated list is exactly the reason to be skeptical of even clean-sounding government aid programs. (Note: WIC is not the same thing as food stamps, which are more flexible). The coldest hearted libertarians (among whose number I count myself) would likely put the abolition of aid to poor babies and nursing mothers at the end of the To Do list. But apparently, the last time this list was overhauled was shortly after the program was created in the 1970s, when there was still an actual danger in the U.S. that pregnant ladies would be skinny and hungry. Private charities moved to giving out vegetables long ago. But it's 2009, and someone finally pushed through vegetables other than carrots (1 lb bag, no "baby, julienne, or organic").