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Recipients of WIC program struggle to find approved food during pandemic


An empty shelf of baby food, a Women, Infants and Children Program product, at Lowes Foods in Wilkes County, North Carolina. WIC products such as baby food have been selling out at increased rated due to the COVID-19 pandemic, putting WIC participants under extra duress.

Policies regarding the Women, Infants and Children Program have been adjusted due to the COVID-19 pandemic as recipients of the program report difficulties in finding approved foods in grocery stores across the state.

The WIC program is a supplemental nutrition program funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. WIC provides benefits for pregnant women and women with young children who fall under a certain income level.These benefits include cash-value vouchers for WIC-approved food products, nutrition education, breastfeeding support and more.

“We’re concerned about the ability for WIC participants to meet their nutritional needs during this time given the absence of many staple food items at many grocery stores,” Suzy Khachaturyan, a policy analyst with the N.C. Justice Center, said. “As you may know, WIC participants have certain allowable foods they can purchase, so if an item they need is not there, they may leave empty handed.”

Kelly Connor, communications manager for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, said a survey of North Carolina WIC vendors found intermittent shortages in some WIC food categories, including dried beans, eggs, bread, whole wheat tortillas and milk. 

Connor said only 32 percent of vendors surveyed reported they were not experiencing any shortages at all. 

“NCDHHS has been working with vendors on these shortages and also ensuring that WIC products from new suppliers are included on the WIC Approved Product List,” Connor said in an email. “NCDHHS requested and was granted a waiver for food package flexibilities.”

This waiver for food package flexibilities provides a greater range of food options to those who rely on WIC products. For instance, the typical WIC food package includes 1 percent or nonfat milk, but if a grocery store is out of these products, WIC consumers can purchase 2 percent milk with their package. 

The waiver was granted by the USDA, but it's temporary — it only remains in place until May 31. However, though no official announcement has been made, the waiver may be extended.  

“I think that there’s the potential to expand (the time the waiver is in effect) if we are still in a pandemic situation,” Alisha Bailey, the WIC and Breastfeeding programs manager at Piedmont Health Services Inc., said. “I think they would very likely extend that until everything normalizes.” 

Along with the approval of the waiver for food package flexibilities, local WIC offices have taken measures to ensure their services are available for those who need them. Connor said the statewide WIC program has provided guidance to local offices on how to provide remote services. At Piedmont Health Services, which oversees the WIC programs in Orange County and Chatham County, staff is making sure their nutrition education, breastfeeding support and other services are accessible remotely. 

“We have a triage person who receives all the incoming calls for each site, and then they connect with a nutrition staff or other support staff at their site to meet the needs of the family,” Bailey said. “All of the interactions with our participants are by phone. We also do now have video lactation capabilities. We’re going to be launching that next week for our breastfeeding moms.”

Local WIC offices have also been working with local food distribution points, and they direct WIC participants to these sites. 

“Knowing that WIC is just a supplemental food program, what we’re able to provide is not going to feed a family alone,” Bailey said. “So we very often have to refer families to additional resources. We’re making sure to stay at the forefront of where all those resources are and share that information as quickly as we can to our participants who could use that additional help.”

Local WIC offices are not the only groups working to help WIC consumers and combat food insecurity. Major grocery store chains in Orange County that accept WIC have also been working to keep their shelves stocked. 

Stores have released statements on their websites regarding how they are responding to the empty shelves in their stores. Harris Teeter, Walmart and Lowes Foods are some of the stores that announced that certain items in their stores will have purchase limits that will help ensure more customers are able to find what they need when shopping. Some of these items include milk, eggs, baby formula, meat and household supplies. 

Many of the stores have begun hiring retail and distribution employees to help meet the increased demand during the pandemic. Additionally, Food Lion and Lowes Foods announced that they are working with vendors and suppliers in order to restock their stores.

Khachaturyan said safety net programs like WIC and the supplemental nutrition assistance program are essential for helping families get through the economic impact of the pandemic. 

“As the state looks ahead with this ongoing crisis and its eventual aftermath, it will be important to examine the barriers put in place to access these essential programs and how the state’s policy choices can instead support individuals and their families to thrive,” Khachaturyan said.


@DTHCityState |

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