Children aren’t eating enough fruit or vegetables, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — a problem that only worsens as they age. But a new study found greater access to healthy foods through government-funded nutrition programs can improve the diets of millions of young children.

In 1974, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) first launched the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), which was designed to provide low-income pregnant and breastfeeding women, their infants and children up to age five nutritious food and education. WIC has since become one of the biggest federal grants to sustaining the healthy diets of millions every year.  But in 2009, the USDA overhauled the foods provided in the package to include more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat milk. And a team of researchers from the University of California was curious to see if it made any nutritional difference among the children benefiting from WIC.

Their new study, published in the journal Pediatrics, found the changes resulted in improvements for roughly four million WIC-eligible children, a majority of whom weren’t getting enough fruits and vegetables each day. 

Researchers measured the diets of 1,197 children between the ages of 2 and 4 years old from low-income households before the 2009 food package overhaul, and then again after changes had been implemented. They calculated how close each child’s diet was to hitting the highest possible score of 100, according to the USDA’s Healthy Eating Index of 2010.

Results showed program changes increased their score from 52.4 to 58.3 points. Some areas of their diet increased more than others. 

“Vegetables are part of a healthful diet, but in general, children don't eat enough of them,” said the study’s lead author June Tester, a pediatrician at the UC San Francisco Benioff Children's Hospital Oakland, in a press release. "Although the findings only showed significant improvement for consumption of greens and beans, the other areas for which WIC has put in important efforts — increased consumption of whole fruits rather than fruit juice, increased whole grains — all show trends in the right direction.”

Before 2009, children in the WIC program reportedly ate very little fruits and vegetables, if at all. With increased access, though, families eat a wider range of healthier foods. For example, when children made the switch from whole milk to low-fat milk, they received it well and it did not decrease their overall milk consumption among preschoolers.

Researchers believe their findings not only confirm the WIC changes led to greater intake of target food groups worked, but it can pave the way for continued improvement. By investing in healthy habits earlier in life, children will be more likely to incorporate fruits, vegetables, and whole grains later in life. 

The study’s co-author Patricia Crawford, a cooperative extension nutrition specialist with UC's Nutrition Policy Institute, concluded: "Increasing consumption of nutritious foods such as green leafy vegetables and whole grains in the low-income children served by WIC will help them establish healthier eating patterns for their future.”

Source: Tester J and Crawford P. Pediatrics. 2016.