ST. LOUIS -- Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns has awarded nearly $1 million in grants to California, New York, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Vermont.

These grants are designed to help states develop, implement and evaluate new or innovative methods of service to meet the changing needs of participants in the Women, Infants and Children's Program (WIC).

"WIC is a vital component of the nutrition assistance safety net," Johanns said. "These grants will enable states to develop strategies to help build healthier communities by providing nutrition assistance, promoting healthy eating and encouraging physical activity to reduce obesity, which is a serious issue in our country, among children of all backgrounds."

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children-better known as WIC-safeguards the health of low-income women, infants and children up to age 5 who are at nutrition risk. The program serves 8 million each month by providing nutritious foods to supplements diets, nutrition education and referrals to health care.

The grant awards are part of USDA's Food and Nutrition Service's Revitalizing Quality Nutrition Services in WIC (RQNS) initiative. The goal of RQNS is to improve and strengthen the effectiveness of WIC nutrition services.

Data indicate that a higher percentage of children at the lowest income level are likely to be overweight or at risk of being overweight. Overall, it is estimated that about 17 percent of children and adolescents in the United States aged 2 to 19 are overweight.

California and New York received funding for three-year projects to encourage physical activity and combat overweight and obesity among WIC children through nutrition education and counseling activities. New Hampshire received funding to begin a similar project. Massachusetts and Vermont received funding to develop concept papers for proposals on how to encourage physical activity among WIC children.

For more information on the WIC program visit the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service Web site.

SOURCE: USDA news release.