Investing in Nutrition Will Improve Black Maternal Health Outcomes
By Eric Mitchell, Executive Director of the Alliance to End Hunger; and Tammy Boyd, JD, MPH Chief Policy Officer & Counsel at the Black Women’s Health Imperative
The pandemic has exacerbated the disparities in the nation’s health care system. According to Centers for Disease Control, 3 out of 5 pregnancy-related deaths in the U.S. — or about 60% — are preventable. Yet the U.S. has the highest maternal mortality rate among its peer countries — and the rate is rising. About 700 women die each year because of pregnancy or its complications. Additionally, Black women are three to four times more likely to die from complications of pregnancy or childbirth than white women. This racial disparity persists regardless of age, socioeconomic status, education, and other factors.
That is why the Alliance to End Hunger has partnered with the Black Women’s Health Imperative (BWHI) to promote education and advocacy on the maternal health crisis. The BWHI, a national organization dedicated to improving the health and wellness of Black women and girls, has created the first National Health Policy Agenda for Black women.
There are several factors that influence maternal health outcomes; therefore, solutions to address the issue must be multi-dimensional — this includes ensuring that pregnant mothers and their babies have the necessary nutrition to thrive.
The WIC program, more formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, is a nutrition program that has bridged the gap between medicine, food, and nutrition better than almost any program. While research is still needed to document WIC’s impact on Black women’s maternal mortality rates, national aggregated data shows that WIC contributes to healthier pregnancies, improved birth outcomes for low-income women and infants, and healthier growth and development for young children. Breast feeding support provided through WIC has proven effective in addressing racial disparities in breast feeding rates among Black women.[i] Further, WIC’s prescriptive nutrition interventions reduce the likelihood of preterm birth, low birthweight, infant mortality, birth defects, and childhood obesity.[ii] WIC is cost-effective and more than doubles the return on initial investment in medical, educational, and productivity cost-savings.[iii]
Unfortunately, many eligible families do not participate in WIC or drop off the program. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, only 51 percent of all eligible women participated in WIC, and Black women represent only 21.54 percent of all women participating in WIC.[iv] Ensuring Black women have access to WIC means they have access to the robust positive health and birth outcomes associated with WIC participation. However, there are very real barriers to participating in WIC that need to be addressed. For example, there is a dramatic drop (21 percent) in participation once infants turned one due to burdensome annual re-certifications and restrictive physical presence requirements that deters parents from continued participation.[v] Improvements must be made to ensure that the program benefits do not go to waste.
The opportunity to strengthen and increase eligibility for WIC is now. The inequities of both race and gender that Black women face have undoubtedly led to the high rates of maternal mortality. Congress must enact bipartisan legislation that enhances access to WIC and modernizes the program in a way that is more beneficial for mothers and children. In the U.S. House of Representatives, the Black Maternal Health Caucus introduced the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act of 2021 which builds on existing bills to comprehensively address every dimension of the maternal health crisis in America — including improving access to nutrition and health services through WIC.
WIC is not only an effective tool for addressing food insecurity, but the program also has a proven track record for improving health outcomes for mothers and their children. However, food cannot completely address the complex causes of the current Black maternal health crisis, and inequities within education, wages, housing, and healthcare are also at play. But providing adequate nutrition to this vulnerable population is one of the crucial steps towards better health outcomes.
[ii] The Center on Budgets and Policy Priorities, “WIC Works: Addressing the Nutrition and Health Needs of Low-Income Families for More Than Four Decades” (2021)
[iii] Nianogo et al. “Economic evaluation of California prenatal participation in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) to prevent preterm birth”. Preventive Medicine, 124: 42–49. (2019)
[v] National WIC Association, “The State of WIC: Healthier Pregnancies, Babies, and Young Children During COVID-19” (2021)