Half of those eligible for the WIC food assistance program don’t use it, new USDA study finds

Only about half of the 12 million people eligible for the food assistance program known as WIC participated, according to a new study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The report also found that participation in states such as Missouri, Kansas and Illinois for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children is largely underutilized and significantly lower than the national average.

“This report is for 2021, but the information in it is relatively consistent with what we’ve seen in some of the earlier years before that,” said Stacey Dean, undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services at USDA.

However, research shows the program’s effectiveness in improving maternal and child health.

“There are various reports that talk about how WIC improves birth, diet and nutrition outcomes. This lowers health care costs overall,” said Bill McKelvey, senior project coordinator for the University of Missouri’s Interdisciplinary Center for Food Security.

There are likely a number of factors that contribute to why the program has fallen short.

“In some cases, people may have misconceptions about who is eligible or not, and so if they accept or think they are not eligible, then they may not apply,” McKelvey said.

Other barriers include lack of transportation to clinics, stigma associated with participating in the program, and challenges while shopping.

“WIC provides specific foods in certain amounts in general, and trying to find exactly what benefit you’re eligible for at the grocery store and going through the payment process can be challenging,” said Zoë Neuberger, senior policy analyst focused on on child nutrition programs for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Participation also varies among different eligible groups. The coverage rate for pregnant women and children is much lower than for infants.

Dean said USDA is investing in the program to address these issues by improving coverage, working with states to streamline the enrollment process and even making it possible to use WIC benefits to shop online.

“I think those efforts are sticking and paying off, so in the last year alone we’ve seen the program grow by 400,000 people,” Dean said.

Although it is not yet known how participation in the program in 2022 and 2023 compares to the number of people who are actually eligible, the data shows that more people are using the program. The number of participants increased by almost 7% between June last year and this year, according to an analysis of data by the Food Research and Action Center.

“We’re up to 6.7 million participants in this WIC program,” said Geraldine Henchy, director of early childhood nutrition programs at the Center for Food Research and Action, “and that jump is holding up across the Midwest.”

This may be related to other programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program losing incentives they received during the COVID-19 pandemic, causing people to turn to WIC.

“We’re seeing a WIC food package that’s more valuable, but the other reason we’re seeing it is we’re seeing a spike in need,” Henchy said.

The Biden-Harris administration has urged Congress to fund WIC at the level needed to support increased participation. Still, food aid advocates are concerned that funding is already lagging this fiscal year, especially after food prices rose 2.4 percent in September from last year.

“Funding bills pending in Congress for the fiscal year that has already begun do not have sufficient funding for WIC,” Neuberger said.

Eva Tesfaye covers agriculture, food systems and rural issues KCUR and Harvest public media and is a America Report a member of the corps.

This story was created in partnership with Harvest public media, a collaboration between public media newsrooms in the Midwest. He reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.

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