The pandemic has sent grocery shoppers online like never before, and federal food assistance programs are trying to keep up. The main food stamp program, known as SNAP — for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — rolled out online shopping before the pandemic, and it’s now available in nearly every state. This has not been the case for WIC, the acronym for Women, Infants and Children. WIC is a similar program that rewards mothers and children for healthy foods, such as milk, fruits, and vegetables.
Late last year, the US Department of Agriculture launched an online shopping pilot program for WIC in a handful of states. I spoke with Brian Dittmeier, who is senior director of public policy at the WIC National Association, which provides education and advocacy services. He said it will be years before the program expands nationwide, but it is important that it does. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Brian Dittmeier: WIC shoppers should be able to shop in a way that is consistent with, of course, SNAP households, but also with the general shopping experience. Trading platforms have been around for a while. We were able to place grocery orders, complete our transactions online and have them delivered to our homes. All of these options should also exist in the WIC space.
Meghan McCartyCarino: What are some of the key lessons learned from the SNAP deployment that WIC is considering in its program?
Dittmeier: In WIC, there are specific foods that WIC participants can purchase by the end of the month. And there can be a number of issues that emerge in the execution process. So what happens with substitutions, and how is this resolved and reconciled with the available balance on the benefit card? The ability to somehow suspend benefits that have been ordered but have not yet been executed and delivered is a key part of what WIC vendors need to consider. The second important element we look at relates to the accessibility and use of these platforms, especially for low-income WIC participants, who live in particular in rural, remote, and hard-to-reach areas. And we know that interest in using online options drops dramatically if plan members have to pay for home delivery options out of pocket.
McCarty Carino: Generally, there are minimum storage requirements for WIC food products. But in the first months of the pandemic, states could waive it. Obviously there were a lot of supply chain issues. There still are, to some extent. And we’ve heard that’s still a problem for some people – that they can’t actually order what they need online. Will technology solve this?
Dittmeier: To some extent, it will. I mean, online shopping platforms will remedy a lot of the challenges of in-person WIC shopping. The ability to filter WIC products or see, essentially, virtual shelf labels that indicate an item is WIC approved. But again, we have to think about those independent grocers and those small grocers that serve remote and rural areas. And having technical assistance and support from the USDA to develop and share solutions among retailers is going to be really critical here.
McCarty Carino: So far, we’ve talked about the ability for WIC recipients to purchase groceries online directly from stores. With SNAP, you can use a third-party delivery service like Instacart. Is this being considered for WIC?
Dittmeier: This discussion is certainly live. But there are a few things that need to be understood before third-party buying services can really engage with WIC. And I think the first piece is that WIC is a nutrition program and provides certain nutrient rich foods to participants. And so, there must be adequate controls in place to ensure that any third-party shopping platform that tries to engage in the WIC space respects the integrity of the WIC advantage and does not try supply foods that are not approved through the WIC Program.
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Brian Dittmeier and other WIC officials and advocates attended a virtual conference this year to discuss the transition to online shopping. Trade publication Grocery Dive summarized many of the ideas they discussed, such as the need to ensure retailer sites are optimized for mobile phones, as home broadband access can be spotty in many communities. rural and low income. Retailers may also need to create sites in multiple languages or offer options like phone ordering for people who don’t have internet-connected devices.
Here are more details on the pilot program the USDA is running with the Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition. Online shopping is or will be available at select Walmart stores in Washington and Massachusetts, Save Mart grocery stores in Nevada, Hy-Vee grocery stores in Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska, and Buche Foods in South Dakota.
Food insecurity was, of course, a huge problem during the worst days of the pandemic, when unemployment soared and we saw those huge lines at food banks. The economy is doing better now, with unemployment almost as low as before the pandemic. But The Washington Post reports that food insecurity is on the rise again as pandemic relief programs wind down and prices for food — and just about everything else — continue to rise.