A blond elementary student selecting food in a lunch line

This spring we saw a flurry of legislation related to nutrition programs, which have wide-ranging implications for the types of whole grain foods that Americans have access to.

On April 18, 2024, USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) published the final rule titled Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC): Revisions in the WIC Food Packages. Just one week later, on April 25, 2024, the USDA FNS published the final rule related to school meals, called Child Nutrition Programs: Meal Patterns Consistent With the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Whole grains have been a part of these programs for well over a decade now, though past iterations of these programs have fallen short of meeting the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommendation to make at least half your grains whole. Today, we’re exploring what these updates have to say about whole grains, and how they might impact whole grain consumption moving forward.

Changes to the WIC program

WIC is a nutrition assistance program in which pregnant and postpartum mothers and their young children up to age 5 who are at nutritional risk receive access to an assortment of nutritious foods. Over the years, FNS has periodically updated the eligible foods accessible to WIC participants to reflect the latest nutrition science regarding the health needs of these populations. In November 2022, the USDA FNS issued a proposed rule suggesting updates to the WIC food packages, and over the past year and a half they have been reviewing public comments on these updates.

One of the most welcome revisions in this final rule is the increased number of whole grain options, which now include foods like quinoa, teff, wild rice, millet, corn meal, and whole wheat naan. That said, there is a strong case for bolstering whole grain standards even further than what we see in these final WIC packages. The 2022 proposed rule included a recommendation from The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine that 100% of cereals be primarily made with whole grains. This new final rule backpedals on the whole grain cereal recommendation, instead suggesting that only 75% of breakfast cereals be whole grain.

While the whole grain updates are a step in the right direction, there is clearly room for improvement in helping Americans meet recommended whole grain intakes. Additionally, research demonstrates that expanding healthy food options in the WIC food packages has made participating stores far more likely to stock these healthy foods, thereby improving access to nutrient-dense foods for the wider community. 

Updates to school meal standards

On the school meals front, the new guidelines also fall short of expectations. Ironically, the whole grain standards that emerged in the final rule titled Child Nutrition Programs: Meal Patterns Consistent With the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans are not actually consistent with the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The standards carry forward the whole grain threshold set in the transitional school meal standards, which mandate that only 80% of grain foods be whole grain-rich. Since whole grain-rich actually means half whole grain, this equates to only 40% of grains being whole. 

The transitional standards keeping the whole grain requirement at 80 percent whole grain-rich were developed with the understanding that the “USDA is committed to its statutory obligation to develop school meal nutrition standards that are consistent with the goals of the latest Dietary Guidelines, and is committed to working toward this effort immediately following this rule.” It is disappointing that the FNS chose to deviate from this rule in developing the new whole grain-rich standards, especially given the administration’s multi-sector focus on healthy food environments for children in the White House National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health.

An analysis published by the USDA Economic Research Service last fall found that children are the only age group improving whole grain intakes, and that school foods are a key factor. If these are the public health impacts after implementation of partial whole grain requirements, imagine the public health impact if school meals were fully aligned with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, helping children to make at least half their grains whole.

Public health change doesn’t happen overnight, and many of the nutrition proposals in the new school nutrition standards are introduced in a gradual stepwise fashion (for example, slowly reducing sodium over time). However, when it comes to whole grains, it is unclear why there are no plans to align the whole grain requirements with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, even a couple of years down the road. Since as early as 2005, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans have been recommending making at least half of our grains whole.

Research consistently demonstrates that repeated exposure to whole grains can shift both food preferences and eating habits in favor of whole grain foods. Stronger nutrition standards (including stronger whole grain standards) are one of many public health tools to help reduce health disparities. Given that an estimated 98% of Americans are falling short of their recommended whole grain intake, policy makers should be using every tool at their disposal to make whole grain foods more widely accessible. We hope that future legislation continues to build on this momentum to further increase whole grain accessibility. (Kelly) 

 

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