As unemployment and food insecurity rates soared, WIC adapted to protect access for the families it serves—but more support is needed.
During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bo-Yee Poon and her children left China, where she had been studying Tai Chi for 16 years, to return home to Vermont. What she thought would be a short stay before returning to her studies turned into a much longer one as all flights back to China were grounded indefinitely. With a home but no immediate job prospects in Vermont, Bo-Yee managed to access insurance through Vermont Health Connect, which fortunately made her and her family eligible for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).
WIC is a federal program that provides critical nutrition assistance to lower-income women, infants, and young children. In 2019, more than 6 million people participated in WIC each month, including roughly half of all infants born in the United States.
WIC turned out to be just what Bo-Yee and her children needed. It provided access to healthy groceries and tips on how to feed her children vegetables and fruit. But more importantly, it helped alleviate her stress and anxiety around providing nutritious food for her family. She knew that even though she couldn’t work or afford childcare, her family would be taken care of. Today, WIC has helped millions of families like Bo-Yee’s eat healthy food on a lower budget, providing a sense of relief during particularly difficult times.
Centers Adapt Rapidly to Keep Families Healthy During COVID-19
Since it began in 1974, the WIC program has helped millions of women who are pregnant, postpartum or breastfeeding, and infants and young children up to age five, eat healthier foods even on lower incomes. Through federal grants to states, WIC provides around $40 in monthly benefits to each participant to purchase nutritious groceries. WIC also provides referrals for health care and nutrition education. It’s widely considered to be one of the most successful nutrition intervention programs for improving maternal and child health.
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic brought unprecedented increases in unemployment; larger than those during the Great Recession. In part because of this rise in unemployment, food insecurity has grown, along with increases in food prices and shortages of staple grocery items such as milk, formula, eggs, bread, and beans—all items that participants have come to rely on as part of their WIC packages. The disruptions have been particularly profound for pregnant and postpartum women, infants, and young children, all of whom have unique nutritional needs.
COVID-19 has led to a significant growth in WIC enrollment. For example, in California, Kentucky, North Carolina, and South Carolina, participation grew by more than 10 percent between February and September 2020. Experts expect this trend to continue for years. This growth has forced WIC providers to adapt rapidly and to alter procedures. Traditionally, WIC supports had been conducted in person at community-based clinics. COVID-19 changed all that for participants, staff, and their families.
Thanks to a series of waivers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which administers WIC, providers were able to remove requirements for these in-person visits and to quickly implement remote services. State agencies are also now allowed to issue up to four months of benefits at once, reducing the need for physical contact. And in those states that couldn’t easily ramp up the necessary technological infrastructure, clinics began providing curbside services that reduced in-person contact while continuing to meet participant needs.
Prior to the pandemic, most participants received their WIC benefits monthly. But to better support families during the sporadic food shortages in the early days of the pandemic, more states began providing benefits electronically, and expanded the list of WIC-approved foods. That gave families more flexibility in items they could choose--including around the fat content of milk, increases in the size of whole grain items and the count of eggs. And, WIC partnered with manufacturers and retailers to address disruptions to the supply chain. More states also began to provide benefits electronically instead of just on paper vouchers.
New Report Explores How COVID-19 Has Impacted WIC
Now, more than a year into the pandemic, WIC continues to pivot to meet new challenges. But in order to remain the vital resource for families that WIC is today, it needs more support and resources. I spoke with Brian Dittmeier, senior public policy counsel at the National WIC Association, about their new report on how the pandemic has affected WIC, how WIC has adapted to continue serving its participants, and what is still needed to ensure that it can meet the needs of its participants.
Federal Support Needed to Ensure WIC Continues to Support Families
The WIC program is a lifeline to millions of women, mothers and children across the country. In fact, right here in New Jersey, almost 135,000 people participated in 2019—that’s more than 53 percent of eligible residents. You can learn about how essential WIC and other child nutrition policies are in your state here. And listen to stories of parenting and how WIC is a necessary resource for moms to provide the best health and well-being for their young children.
The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored existing inequities in our public health system and the need for federal support in providing families with healthy meals and nutrition support. As such, USDA and Congress should ensure the current waivers that are enabling families to access WIC services during the pandemic remain in place for as long as needed, and that states and WIC offices have the technical support they need to continue serving families effectively.
When the pandemic finally ends, we must ensure that support for WIC continues and expands. That means that Congress should increase WIC funding to extend eligibility to postpartum mothers through the first two years after giving birth and to children through the age of six to align with participation in school meal programs. There should also be efforts to enable infants and children to participate for two years before having to reapply, instead of 6 to 12 months as it is now.
Policymakers must also work to increase racial equity in WIC participation, including making WIC packages more culturally inclusive, providing targeted support based on health disparities, and providing breastfeeding support that is inclusive and relevant for women of color. These and other updates to the program can help it build on its track record of success, and capitalize on how local WIC agencies across the country have responded to the pandemic.
WIC is truly one of our country’s most vital programs, not just for the number of families it serves, but for the impact it has. Bo-Yee’s family is just one of many who have been able to eat healthier and access essential services thanks to WIC. But there are many more women, children and families who need WIC. We must ensure that WIC has the support to continue to innovate and reach all the families that need it.
Read our policy briefwhich analyzes research on how the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and WIC impact the health and food security of young children.
About the Author
Jamie Bussel, RWJF senior program officer, is an inspiring, hands-on leader with extensive experience in developing programs and policies that promote the health of children and families. Her work focuses on ensuring that all children have the building blocks for lifelong health.