Significant media attention has been paid to challenges WIC participants are facing when it comes to obtaining WIC foods in the midst of the COVID-19 public health emergency. In several communities, there have been reported shortages on the grocery store shelf for key WIC products, including infant formula.
The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) is a federally funded program to provide nutrition benefits and education to at-risk pregnant and postpartum women, infants, and children up to age 5. Administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), each state manages its own program and will have different policies for issuing benefits. This means that WIC operations will vary from state-to-state.
WIC shoppers can redeem benefits for specific nutritious foods at retail grocery stores with either electronic-benefit transfer (EBT) cards or paper vouchers. WIC shoppers are limited to specific items - such as whole-wheat bread, beans, eggs, milk, and cheese. WIC also allows for participants to purchase infant formula.
Each state develops its own “food package” that governs which specific products, brands, and package sizes can be redeemed by WIC shoppers - all determined by scientists and nutritionists to contribute to the healthy growth and development of young children. Some states may designate WIC-approved items with shelf tags or other labels, but that is not a uniform practice across the country. Due to the COVID-19 public health emergency, many states have expanded the brands and package sizes that can be redeemed - especially milk, whole grains, and eggs. WIC shoppers should look at their state agency websites or contact their local clinic before heading to the grocery store to confirm changes to the food package.
Each state issues benefits to participants at different times throughout the month. Some states will load benefits onto an EBT card or distribute paper vouchers on the first of the month. Other states may issue benefits at different points throughout the month. Nonetheless, WIC shoppers can conduct their shopping at any time throughout a month. Rather than avoid the grocery store at certain dates, the National WIC Association encourages all shoppers to be mindful of their neighbors when shopping. We must all play our part to avoid hoarding key products - like infant formula - to ensure that all shoppers can purchase the products they need.
The National WIC Association is working with retailers, food manufacturers, and other stakeholders to streamline the WIC shopping experience throughout this public health emergency. Retailers are constantly adapting their practices to ensure a safe shopping experience for all, and NWA continues to urge USDA to embrace innovative retail strategies such as curbside pickup and self-checkout that will ensure the safety of all shoppers, including WIC participants.
Remember: roughly half of all infants born in the United States access WIC services. WIC participants are our neighbors, our friends, and our community. In this unsettled time, it is critical that we support each other to ensure that everyone remains healthy and has access to the food that they need to weather this crisis.
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