More About Zoë Neuberger

Zoë Neuberger

Neuberger, a Senior Policy Analyst, joined the Center in May 2001.

Full bio and recent public appearances | Research archive at

Politics Wins a Round, but the WIC Potato Fight Isn’t Over

February 10, 2014 at 2:06 pm

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack should reject Congress’s recent call to add white potatoes to the limited list of foods that the WIC program provides.  The report accompanying the omnibus spending bill that Congress approved last month instructs the Agriculture Department (USDA) to include all kinds of vegetables, including white potatoes, in the WIC food package; if Secretary Vilsack decides not to, he must submit a report to Congress explaining why.

Potatoes have never been part of the WIC food package, and with good reason.  The low-income women and young children that WIC serves already consume plenty of starchy vegetables — the most popular of which is the white potato — while under-consuming fruits and other vegetables, according to the most recent independent scientific review.  Therefore, Secretary Vilsack should leave white potatoes out unless a new, independent review of the science shows that they should be added.

WIC provides nutritious foods, counseling on healthy eating, and health care referrals to roughly 9 million low-income pregnant and postpartum women, infants, and children under age 5.  It was never intended to provide a full range of foods.  It’s a supplemental program, providing the key nutrients that nutrition scientists say are missing from the diets of low-income pregnant and nursing women, infants, and young children.

If participants start using their WIC fruit and vegetable vouchers — which amount to just $6 or $10 a month — to buy white potatoes, that would not only raise starch consumption but also leave less for foods that participants don’t eat enough of, such as dark green leafy vegetables.

Throughout WIC’s 40-year history, members of Congress whose states or districts produce or process various food items have sometimes urged WIC to include those items.  But

Congress has never required WIC to include (or exclude) any particular food item, believing correctly that such decisions should reflect scientific evidence, not political pressure.

To no small degree, WIC’s well-documented success at improving birth outcomes and participants’ nutrition and health reflects the program’s insulation from political pressures and its sole focus on promoting maternal and child health.  Capitulating to political pressure in this instance would encourage various segments of the food industry to line up members of Congress to push their products in WIC, as well.

While USDA hasn’t announced a decision, it “continues to believe in the importance of basing the nutrition standards for WIC on the best science available,” according to a spokesperson.  That sounds like Secretary Vilsack intends to place children’s well-being first, where it belongs.

Making High-Poverty Schools Hunger-Free

October 1, 2013 at 12:55 pm

With nearly 16 million children in households that have trouble affording enough nutritious food at some point during the year, several states are taking advantage of a new federal option to reduce hunger and streamline their school meal programs, as a major new report from CBPP and the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) explains.  More schools should think about this new option, which will become available to qualifying school districts nationwide for the next school year.

Those 16 million children are a powerful reminder of why we must make sure that every child who needs school meals gets them.

The new option, known as community eligibility, allows schools or school districts where the vast majority of students are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price meals to serve free breakfasts and lunches to all children.

Families don’t have to complete applications and provide detailed information on their income.  Schools don’t have to process those applications or have a cashier figure out whether to provide a free or reduced-price meal every time a child goes through the lunch line.  And students can eat in the cafeteria without worrying about any stigma from receiving a free meal.

Over the past two years, seven states have utilized community eligibility in more than 2,200 high-poverty schools serving nearly 1 million children (see graph).

The first three states to adopt the option — Illinois, Kentucky, and Michigan — have seen striking success.  The average number of children in these states eating school lunch daily rose by 23,000 (or 13 percent), while the average number of children eating school breakfast daily rose by 29,000 (or 25 percent).  Overall, school meal participation is far higher in schools that offer community eligibility.

The report details the experiences of community eligibility schools, provides resources, and outlines best practices that can help more schools implement the option.

No vulnerable child should miss out on healthy meals because of red tape.  By adopting community eligibility, schools can take an important step toward making that goal a reality.

If Lunch Isn’t Free, How Much Should It Cost?

June 26, 2013 at 2:06 pm

Many school districts don’t charge nearly enough to cover the cost of “paid lunches” for students whose family incomes are too high to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.  As a result, some school districts divert part of the federal subsidies that are supposed to help pay for meals for low-income children to subsidize meals for better-off children, leaving less money to improve what’s on the plate.  The most recent renewal of the school meals programs included a measured solution to this problem — but now some members of Congress mistakenly want to undo the fix.

More than four-fifths of reported paid lunch prices in the contiguous United States were less than the $2.51 federal reimbursement that school districts received for each free lunch last year, according to Agriculture Department data (see graph).  Not charging enough for paid meals creates a budget gap for school lunch programs.

When school districts don’t generate enough revenue to cover the cost of paid meals, they cannot serve the highest quality food, and funding for other priorities like food safety, electronic payment mechanisms that prevent low-income children from being stigmatized, and training and compensation for cafeteria staff may be jeopardized.

To address this problem, Congress in 2010 adopted a provision, known as paid lunch equity, to shore up revenues for paid lunches.  School districts that generate less revenue for each paid lunch than for each free lunch must gradually close the gap between the two — by increasing non-federal revenue or raising prices by no more than five or ten cents per year.  This provision will help ensure that the subsidies provided for low-income children go to their intended purpose — to feed our nation’s most vulnerable children.

Unfortunately, a bill introduced by Reps. Steve Stivers (R-OH) and Marcia Fudge (D-OH) would exempt most school districts from paid lunch equity.  The bill’s supporters argue that a resulting price increase, amounting to no more than an extra $2 per month per child, would prevent or discourage many families from buying school meals.  But undermining paid lunch equity would squander the opportunity to protect subsidies for low-income children.  Plus, the case for the bill is extremely weak.

  • Participation in paid school meals fell this year, but there’s no evidence that prices played a role. Over the past three years, about 45 percent of children in the paid meal category ate a school lunch each day.  A participation decline was widely expected because important new nutrition requirements kicked in this year, which may make lunches less appealing to some children until they adjust to the changes.  In October 2012 (the most recent month for which this analysis is possible), shortly after the menu changes took effect, paid meal participation fell to 40 percent.

    No research is yet available to sort out the extent to which menu changes are driving the decline versus the very modest price increases that result from the paid lunch equity provision, but it’s worth noting that school lunch participation has also fallen in many schools that serve all meals free (so prices are not a factor).

  • The Agriculture Department (USDA) has already created an exemption. USDA plans to study the impact of paid lunch equity over the next year.  Meanwhile, it created an exemption for the coming school year, which makes the Stivers-Fudge bill unnecessary.  School districts operating exemplary programs that have substantial budget surpluses will not be subject to the paid lunch equity requirements.
  • Contrary to critics’ predictions, the requirement hasn’t undermined access to the school meals programs. Critics have argued that large numbers of schools would drop out of the National School Lunch Program rather than charge higher prices or make non-federal contributions to it.  To the contrary, the number of schools offering lunch programs has basically held steady, and more children attend these schools and have access to the lunch program now than at any time in the last decade (see charts).

Until we know more about why participation has fallen and whether it is an enduring trend, Congress should not undo a very measured approach to shoring up the revenue of school food programs.

House Bill Underfunds WIC and Would Cut Breastfeeding Counseling

June 12, 2013 at 12:49 pm

As we’ve noted previously, the 2014 agriculture appropriations bill moving through the House underfunds WIC, the highly regarded nutrition program for low-income pregnant women, infants, and young children, and as a result could deny WIC benefits and services to eligible women and children at nutritional risk.  With the bill moving to the full House Appropriations Committee on Thursday, it’s important to understand what’s at stake.

The House bill relies on two unsound budget choices to try to avoid turning away about 140,000 eligible women and children, according to our updated estimate that’s based on new data.

  • More than 98 percent of WIC funds are devoted to the core supplemental foods, nutrition education, and health care referrals for which the highly regarded program is known.  In recent years, about $100 million has been dedicated to two special purposes — an evidence-based breastfeeding peer counseling program and technology upgrades to convert the program from using paper vouchers to electronic benefit cards, which improves management and reduces costs in the long run.

    The House bill would use these funds for benefits if there is a shortfall, which the bill’s funding level is very likely to create — effectively terminating the part of the program that provides breastfeeding counseling to pregnant women and new mothers.  This would mark the first time since the breastfeeding program’s creation in 2004 — in response to medical evidence on the health benefits of breastfeeding — that policymakers have denied funding to this part of the program.

  • Moreover, even with the breastfeeding funds and technology funds, the funding likely would not be adequate to serve all eligible applicants.  The bill also relies on WIC’s Contingency Fund to cover the remaining shortfall — a risky move.  The Contingency Fund is designed to cover unanticipated costs that arise after the appropriation is enacted — e.g., spikes in dairy prices, in fruit juice prices after a winter freeze, or in egg prices after an avian flu outbreak (all of which have occurred in WIC’s history), or a slowing economy that makes more people eligible for the program.  If policymakers tap the Contingency Fund to meet funding needs that we know about before the fiscal year starts, the fund may not be there for unanticipated costs during the year.

The full Appropriations Committee has an opportunity to amend the bill to adequately fund WIC.  If the Committee raises WIC funding, the breastfeeding program could stay in place, the program could continue to be modernized, the Contingency Fund could be reserved for truly unanticipated costs — and policymakers could continue their longstanding bipartisan commitment to providing WIC with enough funding to serve all eligible low-income pregnant women, infants, and young children who apply.

House Bill Would Underfund WIC Nutrition Program

June 5, 2013 at 6:39 am

The 2014 agriculture appropriations bill that a House subcommittee will consider today would underfund WIC, the highly regarded nutrition program for low-income pregnant women, infants, and young children.  The bill could result in the denial of WIC benefits and services to thousands of eligible women and children at nutritional risk.  And it would effectively end the part of the program that provides breastfeeding counseling to pregnant women and new mothers.

The bill bars the use of WIC funds for the Breastfeeding Peer Counselor Program if that means there wouldn’t be sufficient funds to serve all eligible low-income women, infants, and children who apply.  This prohibition would force WIC to cancel the breastfeeding program for most or all of the fiscal year, since the bill’s WIC funding level ($6.655 billion) very likely would be insufficient — and even if it turned out to be sufficient (due to lower-than-expected participation and food costs), the Agriculture Department wouldn’t know that until late in the fiscal year and would have to withhold the breastfeeding funds until then.

If enacted, this would mark the first time since the breastfeeding program’s creation in 2004 — in response to medical evidence on the health benefits of breastfeeding — that policymakers have denied funding to this part of the program.

Evaluations have found that breastfeeding counseling improves breastfeeding rates and duration.  Without this dedicated funding, many states would likely lay off their WIC breastfeeding counselors.

The bill also would help compensate for its underfunding of WIC benefits by withdrawing funding for state investments to strengthen WIC management by converting WIC from paper vouchers to electronic benefit cards.

Even with the withdrawal of funding for breastfeeding counseling and strengthening WIC management, the bill’s underfunding of WIC might force the program to turn away some eligible women and children at nutritional risk.  We estimate that if funds were not diverted from these activities to help pay for WIC benefits, the program would have to turn away nearly 200,000 eligible women and children next year.  Even if the funds were diverted, we estimate that about 40,000 eligible applicants would be turned away unless the program’s Contingency Fund were drawn down.

To be sure, the Contingency Fund might cover the funding shortfall that the bill would create, but counting on that would be risky.  The Contingency Fund is designed to cover unanticipated costs that arise after the appropriation is enacted — such as spikes in dairy prices, in fruit juice prices following a winter freeze, or in egg prices following an avian flu outbreak (all of which have occurred in WIC’s history), or a slowing of the economy that makes more people eligible for the program.

If policymakers rely on the Contingency Fund to meet funding needs that can be anticipated even before the fiscal year starts, the fund may not be there when it’s needed.

Moreover, the Contingency Fund won’t help the Breastfeeding Peer Counselor Program.  Under the bill, WIC must divert the breastfeeding funds to cover any shortfall in paying for WIC benefits before it can tap the Contingency Fund.  This is why breastfeeding counselors, often low-income mothers themselves, would likely be laid off under the House bill.

House appropriators should honor the longstanding bipartisan practice of providing WIC enough funding to serve all eligible low-income pregnant women, infants, and young children who apply — without undermining breastfeeding support or depleting the Contingency Fund unless unforeseen circumstances arise.