Families that participate in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children — known as WIC — may soon see a change that makes shopping for food more convenient.
The Department of Agriculture this month announced a proposal that would allow program participants to buy food online using their WIC benefits. The proposal aims to “streamline and modernize” the federal program, which provides financial support to low-income mothers and children up to age 5 to pay for nutritious food.
WIC benefits cannot currently be used to buy goods from such online retailers as Amazon AMZN,
Being forced to shop in-person with the WIC program, they argued, was anachronistic at best. After all, 54% of Americans had bought groceries online in the previous 12 months, a 2022 survey by Coresight Research found.
“After the coronavirus pandemic began in March 2020, advocates pushed for online access for the government’s WIC program due to the difficulties of in-person shopping. ”
“We agree with WIC participants and stakeholders — online grocery shopping and ordering is essential for busy Americans,” said Stacy Dean, deputy undersecretary for the Agriculture Department’s Food and Nutrition Service, or FNS, in a USDA statement.
This proposal stems from a December 2021 executive order in which President Joe Biden called on government agencies to improve the experience of people who are served by their programs, including by delivering services “in a manner that people of all abilities can navigate.” The administration is accepting public comment on the proposal through May 24.
WIC participants either receive monthly checks or vouchers or use an electronic benefits transfer card, known as an EBT, to purchase food. Currently, they must make purchases using these benefits in person at bricks-and-mortar stores.
If approved, the change could make a huge difference to low-income families. Currently, many low- and even middle-income families live in areas without full-service grocery stores, which means they have to travel miles to purchase fresh produce and other healthy foods.
The WIC program has been an essential source of food and nutrition for low-income families since 1974. More than 6.2 million mothers and children received food support through the WIC program in 2022, according to FNS data. WIC serves 53% of all infants born in the U.S., according to the USDA.
The proposed change would not only make buying food easier and more convenient for families, but it would also help improve nutrition and food equity by giving greater access to a broader range of food sources to people who do not have access to a brick-and-mortar grocery store, Jamila Taylor, CEO of the National WIC Association, a national advocacy group representing national and local providers in the WIC program, said in a statement this month.
“Recognizing major shifts in the retail landscape, this proposal meets WIC participants where they are and addresses barriers to food access that are often felt disproportionately by rural and Black and Brown communities,” she said.
Earlier the pandemic, the USDA implemented online access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, previously known as food stamps. While the WIC program focuses on low-income women and infants, the SNAP program covers low-income households more generally. Participants can enroll in both programs at the same time.
“Earlier in the pandemic, the USDA implemented online access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, previously known as the food-stamp program. ”
More than 175 retailers, representing thousands of stores, accept SNAP benefits for online purchases, and more than 99% of SNAP families have access to online purchasing in all U.S. states except Alaska, Dean told a hearing of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry last week.
The number of SNAP households using their benefits online increased during the pandemic, going from 35,000 in March 2020 to nearly 4 million in November 2022.
A few state agencies — including in South Dakota, Nevada, Minnesota and Washington — received grants through the Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition (GSCN), a nonprofit research center, to help implement online ordering for WIC recipients. These grants were in partnership with the USDA, and will last through July 2023.
A Grocery Dive report said a variety of obstacles to allowing WIC purchases online remain, such as broadband access and grocery availability for rural families, plus issues with inaccurate inventory information.
“FNS is working diligently to remove the regulatory barriers that currently stand in the way of online transactions in WIC. The process will take time, but work is well underway, and we are committed to seeing it through to completion,” Dean said.
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