WIC Steps Up During the Infant Formula Shortage and Beyond

Mother smiling at daughter while she eats and apple

From job loss to school closures to inflation, U.S. families have been facing massive challenges to accessing affordable, healthy food. The infant formula shortage is yet another crisis parents and caregivers are dealing with. For nearly two months, 20% of formula products have been out of stock nationally – and more than 40% of products are out of stock in several states including Colorado and Kansas. 

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) has been key to helping families during this crisis. We spoke with Brian Dittmeier, senior director of public policy at the National WIC Association, to discuss how WIC has supported families during the infant formula shortage and throughout the pandemic. 

Families first faced the economic hurdles of COVID-19, inflation and job loss, and now the infant formula shortages. What role does WIC play in times of crisis?

No matter the circumstances, WIC is focused on healthy pregnancies, healthy births and healthy kids. WIC works to insulate families from inflation and rising food costs by providing foods based on quantity as opposed to by cash value. This allows for the same level of nutrition to be delivered regardless of food price. The only exception to this dynamic is the fruit and vegetable category, where the cash value benefit has been increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, not just to account for inflation and rising food costs, but to more robustly address the nutritional needs of pregnant and postpartum women and young children participating in the program. 

In addition to connecting families with healthy foods, WIC’s clinical services are an incredible support during COVID-19 and other crises. WIC’s nutrition and breastfeeding counselors take on many hats to support their community and to be a resource, a confidant and a source of encouragement for families during challenging times.

What challenges has the WIC program faced over the course of the pandemic? What policy changes has WIC made to address these challenges?

WIC providers have truly adapted program services to account for the limitations and the public health precautions presented by COVID-19. WIC has innovated to deliver more flexibility for WIC families and present options that are more consistent with healthcare settings, especially through the introduction of telehealth and remote appointments that had been scarce before the pandemic. With these flexibilities, WIC has reported a 10% increase in children who participate in the program during the pandemic, completely reversing a decade-long trend of declining participation among children. 

More flexible services have empowered WIC to have a broader reach among the eligible population, ensuring that more families are connected with this critical public health support. In addition to remote services, the increase in WIC’s fruit and vegetable benefit has ensured that families have more resources and WIC participants have enhanced purchasing power to access nutritious foods that are the foundation for health. 

The USDA has said it plans to take action to address infant formula access through WIC, including launching online shopping and most recently extending flexibilities for manufacturers. Can you talk about what those changes could look like?

The infant formula shortage is not a WIC-specific crisis, but thankfully the WIC program has been able to implement broad flexibilities to help address it. WIC providers are able to offer not just additional brands, but additional container sizes. Providers responded swiftly to ensure that all WIC participants could be treated like any other consumer with respect to product exchanges at the beginning of the recall. We’ve also been carrying forward the successful innovations that were tested during COVID-19, such as remote services and online shopping.

After supply is shored up, the federal government needs to take a close look at how babiesare fed in this country. We need to evaluate all of the policies that impact breastfeeding success and formula availability – including hospital and employer policies, marketing practices, and the resiliency of the infant formula sector. When it comes to WIC contracting, any changes must be mindful of the savings generated by sole-source contracts and must preserve the bipartisan consensus that WIC should be funded at an appropriate level to assure access to all eligible participants.

Looking into the future, how do you see WIC evolving to continue to support families? 

Fundamentally, WIC’s core mission has been proven to be a public health success. Access to healthy foods, coupled with individualized nutrition and family counseling services, has made a difference on pregnancy and birth outcomes, breastfeeding rates, and the onset of chronic diet-related conditions, including childhood obesity. But there’s still work to be done. Access to nutrition and counseling support needs to be accessible to everyone regardless of income. 

WIC’s professional workforce is well positioned to support all families in making healthy choices. Through innovative partnerships with Medicaid and private health plans, WIC’s services could be expanded beyond the income limitations to ensure that the program is positioned as a go-to community resource that bolsters access to healthy foods and individualized nutrition counseling.

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