As Congress considers additional legislation to provide relief during COVID-19, President Biden and Vice President Harris have proposed $3 billion in multi-year investments to strengthen the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). This is a strong commitment to reinvest in WIC’s quality nutrition services to improve health outcomes for pregnant and postpartum women, infants, and children under age five.
WIC’s demonstrated public health success reduces infant death, improves pregnancy and birth outcomes, reduces the risk of preterm birth and low birth weight, improves breastfeeding rates, enhances children’s diet quality, and lowers the prevalence of childhood obesity among young children. WIC support is critical to reducing racial disparities related to healthy food access, diet quality, breastfeeding, and maternal and infant health.
Yet truth be told, despite its successes, WIC is a 20th-century program operating in a 21st-century world. For WIC to have a larger health impact, it must reach the 49 percent of eligible individuals not connected with services. The pandemic required providers to swiftly adapt and reformat a traditionally in-person, clinic-based service to remote or modified operations. Not surprisingly, WIC agencies are reporting increases in participation since the beginning of the pandemic. As WIC providers learn key lessons from this experience, thoughtful investments could make a significant difference in the reach of WIC services during and beyond the pandemic.
The proposed Biden-Harris investment is a critical step towards engaging new families, incentivizing continued participation for young children, and leveraging WIC’s proven services to build a healthier nation. These proposed multi-year investments can help WIC enhance benefits for nutritious foods during the COVID-19 pandemic, build stronger outreach to eligible families, and modernize program services to facilitate more effective collaboration with federal and community partners:
Enhanced Food Benefits
One potential barrier to WIC access is the real or perceived value of the WIC food package. While, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated hunger and food insecurity in the United States – with nearly one in six adults with children reporting not having enough to eat – the average WIC benefit is only $41 per month, with an even lower average benefit of $34 for children. The administrative, time and transportation hurdles are often sufficient to discourage participation.
What makes WIC different from the other federal nutrition supports is that WIC’s strong science-based nutrition requirements assure that food benefits are directed toward nutritious foods that support a child’s growth and development.
By way of example, WIC participants receive a monthly Cash Value Benefit (CVB) for fruit and vegetable purchases, but the value is far too low to assure regular access to the number of nutritious foods required to make significant impacts on health outcomes – only $2.25 per week for children. Congress should increase the Cash Value Benefit to $35 per month and assure adequate funding to sustain the enhanced benefit levels during the pandemic. Doing so would be entirely consistent with bipartisan legislation introduced last year by Reps. Kim Schrier (D-WA) and Ron Wright (R-TX) and the 2017 independent review of the WIC food packages conducted by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM).
For families to access WIC and its critical health benefits, they need to know about WIC. Businesses understand that they must advertise their products to attract consumers. This is no different for WIC. Before the pandemic, WIC was serving approximately 51% of all eligible individuals – which still accounts for 45% of all infants born in the United States. With pre-pandemic participation declining since 2010, support of a national outreach strategy that communicates the importance of the program to expectant parents and newly eligible families is crucial. With a strong majority of WIC participants (71%) receiving healthcare through Medicaid, there are also opportunities for direct referrals and targeted outreach.
Outreach is especially critical in reach communities of color, immigrant or mixed-status families, and rural communities. Congress should provide dedicated outreach funding to strengthen ongoing state WIC agency efforts, build out additional digital and web-based tools to screen potentially eligible families and streamline enrollment, facilitate a national outreach strategy, and enhance culturally relevant and targeted outreach materials.
State WIC agencies were developing new tools and partnerships to address participation and streamline clinic services before the pandemic, and those efforts have only accelerated as providers moved to remote or modified services since March 2020. The development of national-scale technology innovations, coordinated by USDA, to allow individuals to screen for WIC eligibility, initiate an application, and securely share electronic documents with WIC clinics could have a significant impact on connecting new participants with the program. These technology innovations could be complemented by funding to enhance local-level collaborations between WIC and physicians, to enhance local referral networks, improve access to healthcare, and strengthen community health initiatives.
WIC’s partnership with other healthcare and food assistance programs is also key to unlocking additional participation. Congress can direct funding to support federal-level collaborations between USDA and the Departments of Health and Human Services and Interior to facilitate data-sharing and referrals between WIC, SNAP, Medicaid, and the Indian Health Service. While WIC also partners closely with local producers through farmers’ markets, additional funding is needed to modernize the WIC transaction at farmers’ markets. This is essential to enable WIC families to redeem both the WIC Cash Value Benefit and Farmers Market Nutrition Program vouchers in a cost-efficient, modern manner.