Open WIC files to fight malnutrition

The U.S. Department of Agriculture should lift the absurd veil of secrecy from a $6.8 billion child nutrition program.

Not only would transparency deter fraud and abuse, it could also advance the Obama administration’s goal of alleviating food deserts …

Nutrition during pregnancy and early childhood has lifelong effects, which is the rationale behind the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children or WIC, which provides access to food and infant formula.

In Kentucky, 112,000 pregnant women and young children participate in the program that also encourages breast feeding and provides nutrition education, at a cost to taxpayers of $83 million a year.

The about 750 stores that are approved WIC vendors in Kentucky can be penalized for such things as overcharging, selling expired food, not stocking the required food (including fresh fruit) and letting customers use WIC cards or vouchers to buy cigarettes and alcohol.

The Herald-Leader’s John Cheves was able to ferret out that at least 16 Kentucky stores appeared to get WIC disqualification letters during 2014 for a variety of violations.

But because of the silly rule, the stores’ names and locations are secret. The justification is unclear since participating stores post WIC signs in their windows; also, all kinds of government inspections and penalties levied against other businesses are public records.

The USDA, which oversees WIC, is revisiting the regulation. While protecting some proprietary information may be justified, the blackout on information about disqualifications is counter to the public interest …

Knowing where stores are falling short of WIC’s mission would also help those working to expand access to healthful food …

Federal investigations in other states found that businesses that should have been disqualified for violations continued to collect millions of dollars from WIC.

But as long as the data are secret, there’s no way for the public to know if there are problems in their neighborhood stores …

USDA nutrition programs should be a driving force in combating the epidemic of diabetes and other diet-related diseases. The taxpayers who support them have a right to know how those programs are working.

Herald-Leader, Lexington

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