Our $61 Billion Food Assistance Tab

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The USDA has just published three new reports about food assistance. The first is the 2008 annual report on these programs.

The USDA spent nearly $61 billion of taxpayers' money on food and nutrition assistance programs for low-income individuals and families last year, 11 percent more than in 2007. Overall, 2008 was the eighth year in a row that the total amount spent on these programs set an all-time record.

WIC (Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants, and Children) is among the most important of these programs. Even though it is not an entitlement and serves only about half of the women and children who are eligible for benefits, its enrollments are astonishing. About half of all of the infants in the U.S. are enrolled in it as are about one quarter of all children 1 to 4 years old.

Rates of obesity are higher among children enrolled in WIC than they are in comparable populations. Does this mean that WIC promotes obesity in low-income children? The evidence suggests not, but Mexican-American participants have especially high rates of obesity.

I'm still trying to get my head around what it means that half of U.S. infants are born into families so poor that they are eligible for WIC benefits. Even so, these are just the infants whose families get into the program. What about all the ones who are eligible but can't get in because all the places are filled? Most children born in America are poor? Isn't something wrong with this picture? And what can be done about it?

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Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics. More

Nestle also holds appointments as Professor of Sociology at NYU and Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003), and What to Eat (2006). Her most recent book is Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat. She writes the Food Matters column for The San Francisco Chronicle and blogs almost daily at Food Politics.

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