How Michigan’s WIC Program Fails Michigan Moms: Getting the Formula Industry out of WIC!

The World Health Organization and Unicef recommends that babies are breastfed exclusively (meaning nothing but breastmilk) for the first six months. After six months they recommend a baby continue to breastfeed until they are two years old. Huffington Post’s article on “How Governments are Failing Breastfeeding Moms” says, “It would cost about $4.70 per newborn to get half the world’s babies to breastfeed exclusively for the recommended first six months of life by 2025.” This is based on research from WHO in a report called “Nurturing the Health and Wealth of Nations: The Investment Case for Breastfeeding.”

How WIC Discourages Breastfeeding

Here in Michigan, about half of all moms breastfeed until their babies are six months. However, when you compare these stats to WIC recipients, you will see a drastically different picture. Only 10% of WIC recipients breastfeed at 6 months. One of WIC’s goals is to promote breastfeeding. But, at the same time they are the number one provider of infant formula. Over half of all infant formula is obtained through WIC, according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service. How can WIC’s goal be to promote breastfeeding and at the same time give away (market) free infant formula? This marketing of formula hurts both breastfeeding moms and formula feeding moms.

If you look at the packages that women who breastfeed get compared with women who formula feed you can see why most women would be financially motivated to choose the formula-feeding package. Even if they don’t intend to formula feed, there is more value in the formula package. Breastfeeding moms get more canned tuna, dried beans, peanut butter and $10 worth of vegetables. Compare that with one can of formula that is priced at $17.99 per can. Unless you are a big fan of tuna and dried beans, there is just not much reason to pick the breastfeeding package. Why not pick the formula package just in case? Early supplementation has been shown to decrease the duration of breastfeeding and the formula industry knows this.

The formula industry’s motivation is to make money. This is why they provide free formula to hospitals, free formula coupons to new parents, and offer substantial rebates to WIC in exchange for contracts. They aggressively compete for WIC contracts to market their brand of formula. Do they do this because they care about babies? Formula companies are for-profit businesses so of course they have something to gain — market share.

Improving breastfeeding outcomes would save Michigan money and at the same time improve the health of Michigan babies. According to the Economic Benefit of Breastfeeding Infants Enrolled in WIC, each infant that is breastfed saves the WIC program $478 not only in the cost of formula but also by reducing Medicaid expenditures. Yet, instead of promoting breastfeeding we incentivize formula feeding.

Is there  a need for formula supplementation? Absolutely. Exclusive breastfeeding doesn’t work out for every mother and not every mom wants to breastfeed. This is where WIC also fails moms. The cost of infant formula is signficant. Without WIC many women would not be able to afford infant formula. But what if the retail price of infant formula was more affordable? Formula manufacturers make 20 times more revenue on formula purchased from non-WIC customers.  You see the infant formula industry gives formula away to WIC clients for a reason. Why do they do this?

How Infant Formula Companies Use the Government to Market their Products and Manipulate Prices

Why do we have only have three major infant formula makers instead of true competition in the infant formula industry? Because the formula industries compete for contracts with the US government in order to market their brands to mothers. The women who actually pay for the infant formula in grocery stores pay the price for this marketing. Once a woman begins feeding her infant with formula, she often becomes dependent on it. The formula industry knows this. But this is not all that manufacturers gain from marketing formula via WIC. By providing free infant formula, the government insures these companies get shelf space (and brand recognition) which they use to sell other baby and infant products. If the government stepped out of the way, we would be able to see true competition in the formula industry.

Mothers should be able to decide for themselves how to feed their infants, and responsible government includes getting big companies out of government. Let’s change how Michigan runs it’s WIC program.

If you would like to talk more about how the government influences mothers please come out to our event at Squibb Coffee & Wine Bar on May 7.