National WIC Association

Guidance for Planning, Conducting and Communicating a WIC Research Project

Planning a Research Project

For over 40 years WIC has been helping low-income families access healthy food, breastfeeding support, nutritional counseling and referrals to health and social services. Although WIC is one of the most researched Federal nutrition programs, there are always opportunities for meaningful research that could fill a knowledge gap and provide formative lessons for the program and new data that can support advocacy efforts. Additionally, research on WIC occurs across disciplines and topics, including, for example, nutrition, breastfeeding, food policy, public policy and behavioral economics.

If you are looking for topics to research, we recommend consulting the National WIC Association's Research Needs Assessment, which is a list of high priority research topics for consideration by interested researchers. The latest version can be found here. In addition, there are many other research topics that are of value to WIC and those that may be valuable to a specific local context.

If you are considering planning a research project that focuses on a specific locale, we encourage you to consider the research needs of the locale you hope to conduct research within. Synergies between researchers and state and local WIC staff, enable WIC research projects to have a meaningful impact on local WIC programs. For example, WIC state administrators and local staff worked collaboratively with researchers at the University of Illinois (UIC) to develop projects to evaluate the revised WIC food packages and identify barriers to WIC child retention. As a result, the research generated from the partnership has helped inform programmatic direction.


Conducting Research within the WIC Community

The type of research you conduct may be determined by a number of factors such as timeframe, funding, and scale (whether you are conducting research on a local, state or national level). Another important consideration when determining the type of research to conduct is the level of participation you are expecting from the WIC community, or any special requests you may have for WIC staff or participants. Local agencies may need state approval to participate in a study, it is therefore important to reach out to the state agency with information about your intended research.

Most research will begin with a review of literature and programmatic data. A lot of WIC program data is published on the USDA Food and Nutrition Service website. WIC programmatic data can be found here and the latest WIC Participant and Program Characteristic Report can be found here. If you cannot locate the data you would like to review, you may contact any State WIC Directors here. Bear in mind that some states have protocols for sharing their data, these should be discussed with the State WIC Director.

If you are unsure who to contact to access the data you would like to review, feel free to contact NWA Research and Evaluation Manager, Georgia Machell at gmachell@nwica.org.

Different research projects involve working with different groups of stakeholders. These could include:

  • University researcher centers
  • Contractors
  • Federal Agencies
  • State WIC Directors
  • State WIC employees such as vendor managers, nutrition coordinators, etc.
  • WIC clinic staff
  • WIC participants

Reviewing experiences from the 40-year history of WIC research can impart some valuable lessons about conducting research with the WIC community. Below are some quotes from experienced WIC researchers:

“Sometimes researchers use terminology that means something different to the WIC community and vice versa so we almost always include a follow-up telephone discussion of the request to ensure that we are all clear on expectations.”

“Since all agencies are different, it is often necessary to slightly modify the request for each agency (variable or field names might differ from one state to another or some states don’t collect certain data elements, for example.)”

“We have found that no matter how thoroughly you describe the data in writing, there is always a need to clarify things and to be sure both parties are on the same page.”

The following quotes are from a state level WIC employee, who has participated on advisory panels in national level research:

“Try to tell the story of WIC rather than highlighting the negative aspects of the program try and share both positive and negative as much as possible.”

“Provide the 'Why' of the research being conducted so states are aware of the intent of the research.”

To help key stakeholders effectively manage expectations and conduct high quality work when engaged in research that involves the WIC community, the following guidelines were developed with input from both the research and WIC communities:

  1. Clearly communicate research objectives, both verbally and in writing, when approaching state and/or local agencies with a request for their participation. If it is not possible to communicate verbally with every potential participant due to the scale of your project, consider hosting a webinar.
  2. Define who the stakeholders will be in your research project. This may be straightforward or it may be more complex depending on whether the research project is being planned and conducted by the same entity or if contractors are undertaking some aspects of the research. Regardless, all stakeholders should be clear on the roles and responsibilities.
  3. Agree on the type and level of input participating State and local agencies will be asked to provide throughout the project and what form of input will be requested (interviews, advisory panel, informal phone calls, reviewing reports, etc.).
  4. Be aware of local policy issues that could be of concern to states, locals and WIC participants involved in your research. For example, be aware of sensitive or contentious issues and consider what impact your research could have on policy discussions at a local and national level. If unclear about whether your research could be policy-sensitive, contact NWA or your State WIC Director to discuss.
  5. Communicate with WIC staff, what new insights you think your research will contribute to the WIC program or whether the research is being performed to meet federal requirements.
  6. Clearly outline what is expected of participating WIC stakeholders involved in your project.
  7. Be clear on when there will be opportunities for participating WIC stakeholders to ask questions before, during and after the research takes place.
  8. Provide details of the point person WIC should contact if they have questions about your research.
  9. Clearly describe how you intend to use feedback provided by participating state and local agencies. For example, if you are proving an opportunity for state and local agencies or advisory panels to review documents, clearly describe how that feedback will influence next steps.
  10. If requesting data from WIC state and local agencies, clearly describe the data you would like to obtain, including data fields, timeframe, and expected response time.
  11. Mutually agree to how sensitive data will be used for the research. Are there any Internal Review Board or Personal Identifier Information considerations? Is an MOU required? If so, discuss how these will be addressed with all stakeholders.
  12. Describe who will have access to data provided for the research, how it will be stored throughout the project lifecycle, and how the data will be handled after the research is complete.
  13. Mutually agree to whether and how raw data files and analytic files can be used after the research is complete.
  14. If making recommendations, ensure that they are realistic and note limitations relative to their implementation.
  15. Discuss with stakeholders how you plan to disseminate study findings.

Communicating Research Findings

Publishing research is often the final step in any research project. Publishing in a peer-reviewed journal indicates that your research has been validated by the academic community and has met certain standards. However, to optimize the value of your WIC research for the program, NWA recommends sharing an abstract or summary with NWA so that these items can then be shared with our membership.

Again, with a steady stream of research being conducted around WIC, it is important that NWA helps our community stay abreast when new research is being planned, commissioned or published to ensure that the valuable information is effectively shared with those for whom it is most applicable. Research is also essential to inform direction for WIC advocacy efforts.

For questions or to share research information, please contact NWA Research and Evaluation Manager, Georgia Machell, at gmachell@nwica.org.