PORTLAND – “You know, kids don’t really even need juice at all. Water and milk are healthier beverage options.

And they can get all the vitamins they need from whole fruits and veggies. It’s best for them if you can just avoid juice altogether, because I know — once they get hooked on juice, they can really get hooked.”

“OK, but WIC gives me juice every month anyway.”

The first paragraph is a spiel that I, a pediatric resident at Maine Medical Center in Portland, have given many times and I do understand the reality. Juice is a kids’ drink, kids love juice, and parents give kids juice.

But this was the first time I had heard that the federal Special Supplement Nutrition program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) was actually handing out juice every month.

I came to find out that the 100 percent juice distributed by WIC is meant to supply the daily vitamin C needs for mothers and children.

Because of this, all state WIC programs are mandated to include in their food packages 4 ounces of juice a day per child over 1 year of age, and the same per each pregnant and post-partum woman.

But vitamin C deficiency is not a major problem today. Vitamin C is easily obtained from many common foods.

What is a major problem today is obesity. In 1972, when WIC was started, the nutritional problems of America’s low-income families had a very different face than it does today. From 1971 to 1974, only 5 percent of all 2-to-5-year-olds were obese (with a body mass index greater than 95 percent). In 2003, 13.9 percent were obese.

This increase was even higher among the socioeconomic disadvantaged (up to 14.5 percent).

In 1972, total calorie deficiencies were a significant problem for low-income families; thus, the choice to supply such nutrients in easy-to-package, somewhat calorie-dense forms (such as juice) made sense.

But if a program today is going to “safeguard nutrition risks” (as WIC’s mission statement says) of lower economic classes, where the biggest nutrition risk is that of excess calories leading to obesity, it must emphasize the most healthy way to obtain said nutrients.

WIC has recently made commendable, healthy changes to its food packages, such as replacing whole milk with low-fat milk for children more than 2 years old, adding whole grains, and decreasing the amount of juice distributed.

To take this a step further, I and other pediatric providers from Maine have proposed to the U.S. Department of Agriculture that juice be eliminated from the packages entirely.

This would save the federal government $700 million a year, given that WIC served 9.3 million people in 2009, and about 75 percent of WIC recipients are receiving juice.

At an average of 4 ounces of juice per mother or child per day at about $3 per 46-ounce bottle of juice, this translates to approximately $700 million a year.

Or, perhaps even better, the $700 million could be used for more fresh fruit and vegetable vouchers instead.

This will help to emphasize that whole fruits and vegetables are always better for our children than anything processed, even if it is 100 percent juice.

– Special to The Press Herald