WIC helps moms and kids eat. But finding what you need isn’t always easy

Some states are working to expand access after vendors left due to changes in the WIC program or pandemic-related store closures.

Ashley Yancey feeds her 11 month-old daughter Olivia as two-year old Oliver Tolvert looks on at right

Ashley Yancey feeds her 11 month-old daughter Olivia as two-year old Oliver Tolvert looks on at right Thursday, Dec. 14, 2023, in Douglasville, Ga. Yancey, who doesn't own a car, recently tried to find formula for her daughter at a Target about 30 miles from her home in and was stunned the location didn’t accept WIC. Often, her nearest WIC vendor is out of the product. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Bianca Williams was tired of trying to find a store that either accepted federal food benefits for low-income mothers and their children or a store that had quality produce.

So the Milwaukee resident — who has seven kids, including two currently being breastfed — decided in November that she’d rather turn to frozen Thanksgiving leftovers and food from family and friends.

More than 6 million people in the U.S. get benefits from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women and Children, commonly known as WIC. But it’s not always easy to get the fresh produce, baby formula and other nutritious WIC-approved items.

Williams’ closest Walmart shuttered in 2016. Since then, she said, WIC can be “too much of a hassle.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

“Sometimes, to be honest, I don’t even use it,” said Williams, who makes about $7 too much a month to qualify for food stamps, “because it’s so hard to get to and from the grocery store, and find a vendor that does accept (WIC).”

Unlike food stamps, WIC-approved items can’t be bought online, though a few states are working on pilot programs to make it a reality. Complex requirements make it tough for smaller stores — and sometimes big-name grocers — to participate in WIC. Some states are trying to expand access after vendors left over the last five years due to changes in the program or closing down during the pandemic.

“It’s really set up to be a program, at least in our area, that a large full-scale grocer can participate in,” said Ann Sanders, the director of public benefits policy and programs at the Pennsylvania nonprofit Just Harvest. Since 2019, the state has seen a net loss of 353 vendors.

Though both are under the U.S. Department of Agriculture, WIC differs from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps, because SNAP participants can buy almost any grocery item they want — regardless of the nutritional value. With WIC, states use federal guidelines to choose products and quantities that vendors are required to carry; brands commonly found on WIC-approved lists include Cheerios, Juicy Juice and Similac.

Many smaller stores participate in WIC because community members need the help, but it can come at a cost, according to the National Grocers Association, which lobbies for independent stores.

“It’s not necessarily a big moneymaker for them by any means,” said Stephanie Johnson, the association’s vice president of government relations, adding that some “even lose money from participating in WIC.”

WIC programs have been making a slow transition from paper vouchers to electronic benefits, known as eWIC. It’s easier for shoppers, but stores had to spend money on upgrading cash registers, which in Georgia caused some to quit the program.

Michael Gay, who owns Food Fresh, the only grocery store in rural Claxton, Georgia, said eWIC is “very time-consuming at the register” to parse out which items are eligible. Despite that and other frustrations, he has stuck with the program because, “I want you to have it … I want to sell it, and I want your baby to eat.”

National chains don’t always participate in WIC, either. Aldi doesn’t because it only carries its own brand of formula. Trader Joe’s told The Associated Press in a statement that the majority of its products don’t meet WIC’s brand or size criteria.

About half of Target stores accept WIC, spokesperson Brian Harper-Tibaldo said, because there are different sizes and layouts. He said smaller stores might not have enough shelf space to meet minimum stocking requirements.

Ashley Yancey recently tried to find formula for her daughter at a Target about 30 miles from her home in Douglasville, Georgia, and was stunned the location didn’t accept WIC. Often, her nearest WIC vendor is out of the product.

“It’s embarrassing, kinda,” she said about her attempt to use WIC at the Target store. “Because it’s like, are you too good to take WIC? Are you looking at me like I’m poor?”

Yancey doesn’t have a car, and likes the freedom of doing most of her grocery shopping online, where she can use her SNAP benefits; the USDA started piloting online SNAP purchases in 2019 and expanded it during the pandemic.

“It’s harder that I can’t get my milk like that,” she said. “I have to borrow somebody’s car to go look for the milk, just to not find the milk. It is inconvenient that they don’t take WIC online.”

The USDA is reviewing comments on a proposed rule that would remove barriers to online shopping, like not requiring a cashier to be present for WIC transactions. The agency also has paired with the nonprofit Center for Nutrition to pilot online shopping in seven states and with the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. Major retailers Walmart and Hy-Vee are participating in some places.

“I think the states want to see (online shopping), I think they know it would make a big difference for their participants, and I think retailers are on board, too,” said Ali Hard, the policy director for the National WIC Association, which is an advocacy group and frequent federal partner. “It’s a huge equity issue if WIC participants can’t buy their groceries in the same way everybody else can.”

In states where the number of WIC stores has drastically decreased, officials say the impact is most pronounced in rural areas. Louisiana has lost 68 WIC vendors since 2019, and is working on a recruitment plan for stores.

“We want to focus on more of the rural areas and determine where there might be a store that we can have a conversation with,” Bureau of Nutrition Services Director Jennifer Nicklas said. “Some of it just organically happens when we know we’ve had an existing relationship with the store before … that’s going to really help us to develop where exactly we want to have those conversations.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

In New Hampshire, minimum inventory requirements kept smaller, more rural stores out of the program, said Hailey McAlary with the state Bureau of Family Health and Nutrition, so the state decided those stores no longer have to carry things like juice concentrates and pureed meat for infants.

“I think participation and vendor certification are really connected … food shopping, we all know, has to be convenient,” said Rebecca White, the public and government affairs associate for Hanover Co-Op Food stores in New Hampshire and Vermont. “People will buy foods based on what works with their schedule and their lifestyle.”

___

The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Get the WHYY app!

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal