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

WIC: Critical Support at a Critical Period of Life

March 16, 2015 at 12:32 pm

As we explained this morning, evidence continues to mount that lack of adequate food, stable housing, health care, and other essentials in infancy and early childhood can affect children’s brain development, with long-term consequences for their physical, mental, academic, and economic well-being.  WIC is one of several programs that give very young children and their families critical support during this critical period of life.

Extensive research over the past four decades shows that WIC — formally known as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children — contributes to positive developmental and health outcomes for low-income women and young children.  In particular, WIC participation is associated with:

  • Healthier births. Prenatal participation in WIC helps mothers give birth to healthier infants with higher birth weights.  WIC participation also helps lower infant mortality.  For example, a recent Ohio study found lower infant mortality among WIC participants than non-participants — especially among African Americans, where the infant mortality rate for WIC participants was half that for non-participants.
  • More nutritious diets. Strong evidence suggests that WIC participation increases infants’ and children’s intakes of some essential vitamins and minerals.  As a result, WIC has helped reduce the prevalence of iron deficiency and anemia.  Mothers participating in WIC are also more likely to follow recommended infant feeding practices, like delaying the introduction of cow’s milk until a baby turns 1.  In addition, the Agriculture Department’s 2009 revisions to the WIC food package to encourage healthier eating boosted participants’ consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products.  WIC may also have contributed to the recent halt in the rise in obesity among low-income preschool children.
  • Stronger connections to preventive health care.  Low-income infants and children who participate in WIC receive health care referrals and are much more likely to receive appropriate preventive and curative care. For example, low-income children participating in WIC are just as likely to be immunized as more affluent children — and much more likely than low-income children not participating in WIC.
  • Improved cognitive development. New research links prenatal and early childhood participation in WIC with improved cognitive development and academic achievement.  Children whose mothers participated in WIC while pregnant scored higher on assessments of mental development at age 2 than similar children whose mothers did not participate.  Moreover, the benefit persisted into the school years, as children whose mothers participated in WIC while pregnant performed better on reading assessments.

Could Your School District Streamline Its Breakfast and Lunch Programs?

February 25, 2015 at 4:14 pm

Community eligibility supports Congress’ longstanding goal of reducing paperwork for high-poverty schools by enabling them to offer breakfast and lunch at no charge to all students without collecting and processing individual meal applications.  In its first year of nationwide implementation, more than 14,000 high-poverty schools serving more than 6.6 million children have adopted the option.  Our new report and searchable database help parent organizations, teachers, and other stakeholders in low-income communities identify which school districts have adopted community eligibility and which others could benefit from it in the next school year.

We’ve measured the share of eligible school districts that implemented community eligibility in at least one school, the share of eligible schools that adopted it, and the share of the highest-poverty schools (where community eligibility is most feasible financially for districts because their federal meal reimbursements are the largest) that adopted it.

Although community eligibility was widely implemented this year, participation among eligible schools varied widely by state (see map).  Many more high-poverty schools could benefit from streamlining their meal programs and freeing up resources for educational priorities.  More importantly, millions more low-income children would be better able to learn if they received breakfast and lunch without hassle or stigma.  This spring, school districts will have another opportunity to examine if community eligibility could benefit their schools and students.

WIC Works, Without Congress’ Meddling

February 11, 2015 at 9:51 am

A central tenet of the WIC program is that the foods it provides to millions of low-income mothers should reflect a rigorous, science-based review of nutritionally important foods that participants’ diets tend to lack.

In December, Congress took the unprecedented and irresponsible step of overriding that proven approach.  The Institute of Medicine (IOM) was reviewing whether to add white potatoes — which WIC didn’t offer because low-income women and young children already eat lots of them — to the foods that WIC participants can buy with their fruit and vegetable vouchers.  But rather than wait for the results, Congress (under heavy pressure from potato industry lobbyists) dictated that WIC offer white potatoes.

Congress also directed WIC to abide by IOM’s science-based recommendation once the IOM finished its work.  The IOM has now concluded, based on the latest dietary recommendations and data, that there’s no longer a reason to exclude white potatoes.  Potato consumption hasn’t waned, it noted; Americans still eat more white potatoes than any other vegetable.  But the federal government’s most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans raised the recommended consumption of starchy vegetables, and Americans generally don’t meet the new recommendation, though they come closer than for any other type of vegetable.

The Agriculture Department will undoubtedly follow this science-based recommendation and adopt other IOM recommendations when the IOM completes its comprehensive review of all WIC foods.  That’s as it should be.

While Congress’ mandate in this case turned out to be consistent with the IOM recommendation, lobbying pressure could prompt future congressional directives that conflict with science-based recommendations.  The lesson here is that we can trust the science-based process for selecting WIC foods to respond to changes in dietary patterns or nutrition recommendations.  Let’s hope Congress learned this lesson and won’t try to dictate WIC foods in the future.

Potato Mandate Overrides WIC’s Science-Based Policy

December 15, 2014 at 12:50 pm

In requiring the WIC nutrition program to add white potatoes to the foods it provides, Congress last week pandered to industry lobbyists rather than prioritizing the nutritional needs of low-income women and very young children.

Study after study shows that WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) improves birth outcomes and participants’ diets.  One reason is that it provides a “prescription food package” of a limited number of nutritionally important foods that participants’ diets tend to lack.  WIC doesn’t offer white potatoes because low-income women and young children already eat plenty of them.

With the addition of white potatoes to the food package, many participants will consume inadequate amounts of certain other important foods — because every WIC dollar spent on white potatoes is one dollar less for other fruits and vegetables.

The selection of foods to include in the WIC food package has always followed a rigorous, science-based process.  The current foods reflect a review that the Institute of Medicine (IOM) conducted about a decade ago.  IOM is doing a new review to modify the WIC food package to reflect the latest scientific findings.

Yet Congress didn’t wait for the results.  Instead, at the behest of the potato industry, the 2015 funding bill about to become law dictates that WIC begin offering white potatoes. This is the first time in WIC’s 40-year history that Congress has overridden the science-based process and mandated the addition of a particular food.

Ultimately, WIC should return to its sound science base.  The new potato mandate expires if the next scientific review recommends removing white potatoes from the WIC food list.

But Congress’ decision, at the behest of special interests, to substitute its judgment for that of nutrition scientists and maternal and child health experts sets an unwise and dangerous precedent.  Lobbyists for other food industries may now try to prod Congress to insist that WIC offer their foods as well, regardless of the foods’ nutritional value.  That could jeopardize WIC’s widely heralded success at improving participants’ nutrition and health.

High-Poverty Schools Using New Tool to Streamline Meal Programs

December 9, 2014 at 3:53 pm

Half of the high-poverty schools eligible for the Community Eligibility Provision, which became available nationally this year, adopted it to streamline their meal programs and free up resources for other education priorities, the Agriculture Department (USDA) announced today.

For decades, USDA has offered options to allow high-poverty schools to serve meals to all students at no charge.  Community eligibility, which has phased in over the last four years, further simplifies the meal programs by eliminating the need for schools to process applications or track individual students’ eligibility.

Nearly 14,000 schools adopted community eligibility this year to better serve their students and impoverished communities, and USDA found that more than 6.4 million low-income students attend these high-poverty schools.

Community eligibility is designed to be easy for various types of low-income school districts to implement.  Districts that have adopted it include urban areas like California’s Fresno Unified School District, where 88 percent of students used to qualify for free or reduced-price meals, and rural areas like Kentucky’s Harlan County Public Schools, which serve the families of many laid-off miners.  Harlan County adopted community eligibility when it first became available in Kentucky four years ago, and its test scores have improved from the 14th percentile in the state to the 55th percentile — evidence that feeding hungry children can contribute to an improved learning environment.

Educators at eligible school districts that haven’t adopted community eligibility can learn more about it from their peers and adopt it for the rest of the school year, or for next year, so that the low-income children they serve get the healthy meals they need to grow, learn, and thrive.