PHA Supports Online Ordering and Transactions for WIC

Mom and son with box of veggies and phone The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has recently proposed improvements and modernizations to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, known as WIC. They have proposed changes to empower mothers to purchase more fruits and vegetables, and are now proposing a rule that would open up the program to online ordering and grocery delivery. The goal of these improvements is to increase equitable access to nutritious foods for families with babies and toddlers.

Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA) believes that this proposed rule would improve equitable access to good food, would remove barriers to access like transportation and time challenges, and provide convenience as well as the dignity of choice for the more than 6 million women, infants and children who rely on WIC.

WIC is one of the most powerful, evidence-based public health programs available, with a long history of improving health and developmental outcomes for children. However, the WIC gap, the space between those who are eligible and those who are actually participating, is too large. Before the pandemic, only 57% of eligible people were participating in WIC, and the latest data show that only 50.2% of eligible people participated in WIC during the pandemic. This statistic is alarming as more families could be benefiting from the food, nutrition counseling, breastfeeding support, and health care referrals that WIC provides.

Barriers to food equity

Currently, WIC-participating families are only able to use their benefits at brick-and-mortar stores. The proposed rule would change this, by allowing moms to use their EBT card (similar to a debit card) at approved online retailers. This innovation would modernize and expand the program to allow online grocery delivery, online-only retailers, and mobile platforms for grocery retailers. WIC participants should have the same convenient shopping options everyone else has. Grocery shopping should be efficient and stigma-free – especially for WIC participants with limited mobility or limited access to transportation, those who live in remote or rural communities, and those who have special dietary needs that require supplemental foods that may not be available at the closest WIC-authorized brick-and-mortar grocery store.

The updated definition of who can be a WIC-approved retailer includes additional regulations that help support the rollout and tracking of these new shopping options. Some additional details about the proposal include:

  • Adding state-level WIC Agency staff that would help facilitate food delivery options and support customer service for families utilizing these new retail options.
  • Allowing for EBT benefits provided by the WIC program to be issued, used, and refunded electronically, as well as opening up more payment options within online and mobile platforms.
  • Updating the reporting requirements to ensure continued federal oversight of the WIC program.

In considering this new rule, the USDA can look at the benefits that bringing SNAP online afforded low-income families. According to research conducted by No Kid Hungry, online SNAP shoppers spent $5.24 more on fruits and vegetables compared to brick-and-mortar shoppers (without increasing their total grocery bill). SNAP households also appreciated the anonymity of shopping online versus in store, where they might experience stigma, and the stress-alleviating convenience of ordering groceries online. Bringing the WIC program online in a similar way would help families of our youngest eaters experience these same benefits.

While PHA fully supports the proposed rule, the current model to approve WIC retailers needs improvements. Currently, WIC is run through State agencies, and a retailer must be approved by each State agency, one-by-one, in order to unlock EBT access. Data suggest that it will take four years (2027) until all 89 WIC agencies are online and ten years (2033) before all WIC retailers are online due to the slow process of certifying one retailer at a time and one State agency at a time. We ask the USDA to explore the viability of a new certification for trusted online platforms to enable a quick rollout of the new rule. This would allow families to use their WIC benefits more quickly for online ordering and delivery.

Additionally, the USDA should consider challenges experienced with the SNAP online rollout that should be properly navigated with the rollout of the WIC rule, including:

Lastly, the USDA has asked for comments on whether there is a need to authorize vendors that sell a specific subset of supplemental foods. We endorse the authorization of specialty store types, and see a need for families utilizing WIC to have more efficient access to these retailers. A study published by Ethnicity & Disease found that, while SNAP use at farmers markets was low, many of the study’s participants utilized WIC as a primary source of healthy eating information. Allowing specialty retailers to accept WIC would allow for families using the program as a source of healthy eating education to put those learnings into action. In addition, we recommend the USDA consider expanding EBT access to farmers markets, rather than requiring families to use checks or coupons to take advantage of fresh and local produce.

PHA is committed to transforming the food landscape in pursuit of food equity - the concept that everyone, no matter their zip code, should have access to long-lasting, affordable, good food. Alongside the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, PHA made a commitment to add 100 million servings of vegetables, fruits and beans to the marketplace by 2025, and we are working toward that goal through our programs and partnerships, including our Veggies Early & Often campaign. We can’t build Food Equity alone and recognize the importance of WIC in providing more than 6 million mothers, babies, and young children with nutritious meals.

The addition of online ordering and grocery delivery for WIC would not happen immediately. The commenting period for USDA’s proposed WIC online ordering rule is open until May 24, 2023. After the commenting period, USDA will review all comments before making a final ruling.

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