The WIC Program: Food Assistance for Moms and Young Children

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The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, also known as WIC, is a food assistance program for women and young children. The program provides federal grants to states that can be administered for health care referrals, supplemental foods, and nutrition education for low-income women who are pregnant, breastfeeding, and postpartum.

11 Common Questions About WIC Benefits

These vital benefits also are available to support infants and children up to age five who are considered at nutritional risk. The WIC program represents an important federal-state partnership to protect the health and well-being of low-income children and their mothers.

If you are interested in a WIC program in your area, you may be unsure how the program works and how to sign up for assistance. We’ve rounded up the most common questions about WIC to help you get started.

What is WIC?

The WIC program’s stated mission is to safeguard the health of low-income women, infants, and children up to age 5 who are at nutritional risk by providing nutritious foods to supplement diets, information on healthy eating, and referrals to health care. At the federal and regional levels, WIC is administered by the Food and Nutrition Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The program was established as a pilot program in 1972 and was made permanent in 1974.

Most state-level WIC programs provide program participants with vouchers they can use at authorized and participating food stores. In most cases, many state and local organizations work together to provide food and health care benefits, and more than 46,000 grocery merchants nationwide accept WIC vouchers as acceptable payment.

Throughout its history, WIC has proven effective at improving the health of pregnant women, new mothers, and their infants. A 1990 study showed that women who participated in the WIC program during pregnancy accrued lower Medicaid costs both for themselves and their infants than women who chose not to participate. In addition, WIC participation has been linked with longer gestation periods, higher infant birth weight, and lower infant mortality.

When did the WIC program start?

WIC was developed in 1972 as an amendment to the Child Nutrition Act, which was passed in 1966. Its premise was simple: If pregnant women have access to healthy and nutritious food, they are much more likely to remain healthy during pregnancy and postpartum and deliver healthy babies.

The reverse is also true – pregnant women who do not have access to fresh, unprocessed, healthy foods during pregnancy are much more likely to experience malnutrition and other health conditions and to deliver babies with low birth rates who may find it difficult to thrive. To encourage mothers to eat healthfully themselves and to develop healthy eating habits in their children, WIC provides financial assistance to purchase approved foods that contribute to a healthy diet and overall well-being.

Who administers the WIC program?

How your WIC program is administered depends on where you live. The WIC program is available for participation in all 50 U.S. states, plus 34 Indian tribal organizations, American Samoa, the District of Columbia, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.

While WIC is funded through federal government grants, the program is administered by roughly 90 different state agencies. WIC services are provided at a variety of clinic locations that include, but are not limited to, hospitals, county health departments, schools, and Indian health service facilities.

What benefits does the WIC program include?

Along with vouchers for making grocery purchases, WIC participants are eligible for other resources, including health screening, immunization screening and referral, nutrition and breastfeeding counseling, and substance abuse referrals.

Many of these services are offered at WIC clinics across the nation, and in some states, nutrition education and health screening are delivered through telehealth and other online platforms. If you’re searching for guidance on caring for your newborn or older children, WIC offers many programs that can help you determine appropriate steps for safeguarding their health.

What kind of food products are available through the WIC program?

Keep in mind that the underlying philosophy of the WIC program is to protect the health, well-being, and nutritional intake of small children and their mothers. To that end, the foods provided through the program are designed to supplement diets with specific nutrients that best foster good health and set children up for success.

In many cases, program recipients receive vouchers to purchase food items, though many states have begun to issue electronic balance transfer cards that can be used much like a debit card to purchase approved items. And some state agencies distribute WIC foods through warehouses or even deliver foods to program participants’ homes.

WIC-approved foods include items that support a low-fat, high-protein, and high fiber diet – like peanut butter, infant cereal, fruits and vegetables, baby foods, vitamin C-rich fruit or vegetable juice, iron-fortified adult cereal, eggs, cheese, milk, yogurt, soy-based beverages, dried and canned beans/peas, tofu, canned fish, whole wheat bread and other whole-grain food products.

For infants whose mothers do not breastfeed for 100 percent of the infant’s milk intake, WIC provides for iron-fortified infant formula.

How does the WIC program work?

Since the WIC program is a federal-state partnership, it’s administered a little differently in each state where it’s available. Generally, the United States Congress sets aside each year a designated amount of money for WIC benefits, which is distributed to states, territories, and tribal organizations by the federal Food and Nutrition Service through a grant program. These state and local agencies then issue vouchers to program recipients that allow them to purchase approved foods through participating retailers.

What does “nutritional risk” mean?

The term “nutritional risk” refers to specific health risks that are required for WIC eligibility. First are medically-based risks, which may include conditions such as anemia, history of pregnancy complications or miscarriage, or being underweight.

The second category is dietary risks, which may include factors like inappropriate food for a growing child or failure to meet current recommended dietary guidelines for Americans. Women, infants, and children who are at nutritional risk are more likely than the general population to experience health problems.

It’s worth noting that nutritional risk must be determined by a medical professional, such as a doctor, nutritionist, or nurse, and is based on specific federal guidelines. A health screening for determining nutritional risk is offered at no cost to all program applicants. It’s important to note that many state agencies do not receive enough grant funding to benefit every applicant, so the highest risk applicants will be prioritized for benefits.

What is the WIC Farmers Market Program?

The Farmers Market Nutrition Program, in partnership with WIC, issues vouchers for fresh, unprepared, locally grown vegetables, fruits, and herbs to participants in the WIC program. FMNP vouchers can be redeemed for qualified grocery purchases directly from farmers, farmers’ markets, or roadside stands that have been approved and agreed to accept FMNP vouchers.

All women, infants older than four months, and children who are certified to receive WIC program benefits or even those who currently are on a waiting list for WIC benefits are eligible to participate in the Farmers Market Nutrition Program.

The FMNP was founded in 1992, with two broad goals: not only to make sure unprepared, fresh, nutritious, locally grown fruits and vegetables are available for WIC participants, but also to expand general awareness of how beneficial it is to make fresh grocery purchases from farmers’ markets.

What is the infant formula rebate system?

WIC advocates for breastfeeding as the most nutritious form of nourishment for infants. However, WIC state agencies do provide infant formula for mothers who choose not to breastfeed or who need to supplement breast milk with formula. WIC state agencies are required by law to enter into infant formula rebate contracts with infant formula manufacturers – meaning WIC agencies agree to provide one specific brand of infant formula in exchange for a rebate for each can of infant formula purchased by WIC participants.

The brand of infant formula provided by WIC will vary from state to state since it’s dependent on the particular company that holds the rebate contract in a particular state. Negotiating these rebate contracts with infant formula companies allows the WIC program to provide formula for more participants since it helps lower the costs.

Who is eligible for WIC benefits?

Low-income pregnant, postpartum, or breastfeeding women, plus infants and children up to age 5 are eligible for WIC benefits. They must also meet income guidelines, a state residency requirement, and individually be designated as at nutritional risk by a medical professional. In order to meet income limit requirements, an applicant’s income before taxes must be at or below 185% of the U.S. Poverty Income Guidelines.

Most states by default use the maximum income guidelines, but states also may set lower income limits if they choose. An applicant who participates in other benefits programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Medicaid, or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families automatically may automatically be eligible.

Please note that, by design, WIC is classified as a short-term program. Participants are not expected to receive WIC benefits indefinitely. Instead, participants “graduate” at the end of specified certification periods, which represent the length of time a WIC participant is eligible to receive benefits.

Depending on the age of the child or whether a participant is pregnant, postpartum, or breastfeeding, eligible participants usually receive WIC benefits for anywhere from six months to one year. After this certification period, the participant may need to reapply in order to keep receiving benefits.

How to apply for WIC benefits?

If you’re interested in applying for benefits, you should check with your state agency to request information on where you should schedule an appointment. At that point, you’ll be advised on

what to bring to your appointment to verify your program eligibility. You can either visit your state’s website or call the WIC program’s toll-free number for your state. If you call to set up your appointment, a representative will help you identify the WIC location nearest your home.

WIC Feeds Hungry Mothers and Children

The WIC program is a tremendous health and safety initiative that protects the well-being of small children and their mothers, serving more than six million Americans each year. All indications are that the program is highly effective.

Documented benefits of the WIC program include longer, safer pregnancies for women, with fewer miscarriages, premature births, and infant deaths; improved nutrition for infants and children; better maternal health; and improved school performance.

If you think you may benefit from the WIC program, don’t hesitate – find out as much as you can about your state’s programs to make sure you and your children have access to the fresh, healthy food you need.

 

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