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Expert Perspective

How WIC Has Changed During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Program and local offices continue to help children grow up healthy



October 14th, 2020


The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) is one of the nation’s largest federal nutrition programs, serving approximately 6.3 million people, including about half of all infants born in the United States. WIC supports the short and long-term health of low-income pregnant, postpartum, and breastfeeding women, infants, and children up to age 5 by providing healthy foods and nutrition education; promoting breastfeeding and supporting nursing mothers; and providing referrals to healthcare and social-service referrals.

The COVID-19 pandemic has posed unique challenges to the traditional model of providing benefits for WIC participants and enrolling new participants. WIC providers have adapted swiftly to provide new service delivery models that continue to support new and existing participants throughout the pandemic. Brian Dittmeier, senior public policy counsel of the National WIC Association, and Georgia Machell, senior director of research and program operations at the National WIC Association, share insights about how the program is adapting in response to the crisis and changes that are needed going forward.

"WIC clinics rapidly innovated, figuring out ways to provide services remotely, extending the certification periods, providing food and beverage EBT benefits in larger batches at a time, and doing telephone appointments for nutrition counseling and breastfeeding support. These and other shifts have helped to sustain vital support and services while reducing or eliminating in-person contact to keep participants, clinic staff, and their families safe."

Georgia Machell, Senior Director of Research and Program Operations at the National WIC Association

WIC Shifts to Remote Support

For over 40 years, participants have mostly interacted with WIC at in-person in community-based clinics. Families go to WIC offices to enroll, to receive EBT benefits for healthy foods and drinks, or for nutrition or breastfeeding supports.

But in March the COVID-19 pandemic made in-person visits unsafe. One of the first COVID-19 relief packages, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, enabled WIC services to be provided in new ways. For example, the physical presence requirement for WIC certification has been waived.

The majority of state WIC agencies have implemented effective remote services, but in states that could not easily ramp up the necessary technological infrastructure, clinics have implemented curbside services that reduce in-person contact while continuing to meet participant needs.

Another shift was in how WIC participants used their benefits to buy healthy foods and drinks. Normally, WIC participants can use benefits to select healthy foods from a set of products that meet nutritional requirements for mothers and young children. But the early weeks of the pandemic saw shortages of staple foods and beverages at grocery stores across the country, including milk, whole-wheat bread, and infant formula.

In response, states expanded the approved foods for WIC families to include a broader array of package sizes and brands. WIC also partnered with manufacturers and retailers to address disruptions to the supply chain, but sporadic shortages remain in both urban and rural settings.

Although the circumstances vary dramatically from state to state, WIC continues to pivot to meet new challenges and continues to be extremely helpful to families who rely on it for access to healthy food, breastfeeding support, nutrition education, and referrals.

"The flexibilities provided under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act have been a game-changer: Hundreds of thousands of new families are reaching out for WIC support."

Impact of COVID-19 Relief Packages

In Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, and California for instance, participation has grown by more than 10 percent since February 2020. This increase in enrollment could lead to long-term health benefits for children.

Further, the waivers provided by the initial COVID-19 relief packages are working. WIC waivers ensure that providers can continue to deliver quality nutrition support without putting the health or safety of participating families at risk. The waivers were initially set to expire on September 30, 2020, but were extended through the declared national public health emergency. This has been a shining example of how a federal program can effectively adapt to meet a crisis.

"A nationwide online purchasing solution for WIC consumers is one of many urgent and essential reforms that Congress should consider. WIC has adapted swiftly to respond to the COVID-19 crisis, but a post-COVID America will require a modern approach to meeting the needs of pregnant women, infants, and young children."

Brian Dittmeier, Senior Public Policy Counsel at the National WIC Association

Additional Policy Changes Are Needed

The pandemic underscores existing inequities in the public health system and our country more broadly. One that quickly became apparent is the lack of flexible, online shopping options for WIC participants. Although more and more participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) can buy food online with their benefits, WIC participants must continue to show up in-person to conduct their shopping at a traditional retail grocer. Even mitigating measures such as curbside pickup or self-checkout remain out of reach for many WIC shoppers.

A nationwide online purchasing solution for WIC consumers is one of many urgent and essential reforms that Congress should consider. WIC has adapted swiftly to respond to the COVID-19 crisis, but a post-COVID America will require a modern approach to meeting the needs of pregnant women, infants, and young children. It’s more important than ever that the greater WIC community—participants, offices, and state departments—listens to each other and makes sure all are working together to continue to support access to WIC.

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