Many people struggle to feed their family at some point. Fortunately, many state and federal programs can help you through a challenging time.
The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, commonly known as WIC, is the third-largest food assistance program in the United States. And it has become a crucial safety net for infants. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Research Service reports that WIC supports almost half of all infants in the U.S.
The purpose of WIC is to supplement the diet of low-income pregnant people, breastfeeding and non-breastfeeding postpartum parents, infants, and children through age 5 who are nutritionally at risk.
According to the USDA, WIC supplemental foods provide benefits that include longer, safer pregnancies, fewer premature births and infant deaths, improved dietary outcomes for infants and children, and improved health for the pregnant or postpartum parent.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) reports that children whose parents participated in WIC while pregnant scored higher on mental development assessments at age 2 than children whose parents did not participate in the program. Later, they also performed better in reading assessments while in school.
WIC is just one of many food assistance programs to help feed your family when you’re going through a challenging time. WIC can provide a firm foundation when you need it most. However, there’s a lot you need to know about WIC and the application process before you apply.
What Is WIC?
The federal government established WIC in 1972 to provide money to states for supplemental food, nutrition counseling, and health care referrals for low-income pregnant and postpartum parents and children. The first WIC site opened in Kentucky in 1974.
WIC provides food supplements for specific groups, including pregnant, breastfeeding, and non-breastfeeding postpartum parents, as well as infants and children up to age 5 who are nutritionally at risk due to medical problems or poor diet.
State health departments, along with some nonprofits, organize and distribute funds and resources for WIC. The WIC program is often used in conjunction with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
The program is available in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands as well as through 34 Native American tribal organizations. There are over 10,000 WIC clinic sites in the U.S. and its territories.
WIC is funded through the annual appropriations process. Each year, WIC receives $6 billion, which is enough to provide benefits to everyone eligible to receive them. However, the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire reports that in 2014, less than 43% of income-eligible families and children received benefits through WIC.
According to the USDA’s National Level Annual Summary, in 2019, each person’s food allotment through WIC cost the federal government $40.90 per month.
Pro tip: When shopping for groceries, make sure you download the Ibotta and Fetch Rewards apps. Both of these can be used alongside your WIC benefits and will help you save money on your grocery bill.
Who Uses WIC?
Many American families use the WIC program. The USDA reports that in 2018, approximately 6.87 million adults, infants, and children received benefits through WIC.
You can find WIC assistance locations in many different places within a community, including:
- County health departments
- Mobile clinics
- Public housing sites
- Community centers
- Migrant health centers and camps
- Native American health services facilities
There are several eligibility requirements you must meet to receive benefits through WIC.
WIC provides benefits for the following people:
- Pregnant people (through pregnancy up to six weeks after birth or pregnancy ends)
- Breastfeeding people (up to the infant’s first birthday)
- Non-breastfeeding postpartum people (up to six months after the birth of an infant or after pregnancy ends)
- Infants (up to their first birthday)
- Children (up to their fifth birthday)
Pregnant women and postpartum women aren’t the only ones who can sign children up for WIC, though. For example, fathers may apply for WIC on behalf of their children. Parents who adopt children and foster parents can also apply for the program. Following U.S. Civil Rights regulations, WIC has a nondiscrimination policy, which means WIC offices and staff cannot discriminate based on race, color, national origin, sex, disability, age, or reprisal for any previous civil rights activity.
In the event applications for the WIC program outstrip available resources, caseworkers must prioritize applicants based on their levels of need and nutritional risk. The USDA prioritizes applicants in the following order:
- Pregnant people, breastfeeding parents, and infants at high nutritional risk because of serious medical problems
- Infants up to 6 months old whose parents participated in WIC or could have participated in WIC who have serious medical problems
- Children up to age 5 who have serious medical problems
- Pregnant or breastfeeding people and infants at nutritional risk because of dietary problems
- Children up to age 5 at nutritional risk because of dietary problems
- Non-breastfeeding, postpartum individuals with any nutritional risk
- People at nutritional risk because they are homeless or migrants or those currently enrolled in the program who, without WIC, would continue to have medical or dietary problems
You must live in the state in which you apply for WIC. If you live on tribal lands, you must meet the residency requirements established by the tribal organization. You do not have to live in a state for a specific amount of time to meet the residency requirement.
Nutrition Risk Requirement
After applying for WIC, you must see a health care provider, such as a doctor, nurse, or nutritionist, who can determine whether you are at nutritional risk. Health professionals will provide this exam at a WIC clinic at no cost.
The USDA defines nutrition risk as “medical or dietary-based conditions.” These can include anemia, being underweight, having a history of pregnancy complications or poor pregnancy outcomes, or maternal age. “Dietary-based conditions” refers to having a poor or inconsistent diet.
You must also be income eligible to qualify for WIC. Your income must be no higher than 185% of the federal poverty guidelines to qualify.
The income eligibility guidelines are updated each year. The current income guidelines are effective from July 1, 2020, through June 30, 2021. Your income eligibility depends on the size of your household.
For example, a family of four must earn no more than $48,470 annually to qualify for WIC, while a family of eight can earn no more than $81,622 annually.
If you or a family member participates in SNAP or other federal assistance programs like Medicaid or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), you automatically meet WIC’s income eligibility requirement.
The USDA created a WIC prescreening tool to help determine whether you’re potentially eligible for the program. The prescreening tool takes 15 minutes to complete. The application also provides a list of local WIC offices where you can make an appointment and outlines a list of documents you need to provide.
Through the years, the USDA has taken steps to make using WIC as easy as possible. And the WIC program provides benefits in many different areas.
The WIC program provides healthy, nutritious food for families struggling to make ends meet. However, there are strict guidelines regarding what you can purchase through WIC and what you can’t. The CBPP notes that the foods available through WIC are often lacking in low-income people’s diets. Making sure these foods are available has proven to result in positive long-term benefits for families.
Some WIC foods available for purchase include:
- Ready-to-eat breakfast cereals
- Hot cereal, such as oatmeal or grits
- Whole-wheat bread and rolls
- Whole-wheat pasta products
- Fruit and vegetable juice
- Milk and soy-based beverages
- Soft corn and wheat tortillas
- Dry beans and peas
- Peanut butter
- Canned fish, such as tuna, salmon, or sardines
- Fresh fruits and vegetables
Read through the WIC regulatory requirements for food carefully to understand which foods are eligible. Package sizing, nutritional content, and types of each food also define what’s allowed and what isn’t.
Some foods not permitted through WIC include:
- Imported or spreadable cheeses
- Yogurts sold with mix-in ingredients, such as granola or candy, or drinkable yogurts
- Canned or powdered soups
- Immature varieties of legumes, such as those used in canned green peas or green beans
- Baked beans with meat
- Peanut butter with added jelly, honey, chocolate, or other mixtures
- Herbs and spices
- Vegetable-grain (pasta or rice) mixtures
- Mixed vegetables with noodles, nuts, or sauce packets
- Home-canned and home-preserved fruits and vegetables
Note that these are general lists. According to the USDA, foods approved for WIC differ from state to state depending on regional availability, local pricing, and approved store brands and generics. Some states also distribute food using warehouses or home delivery.
You might also be eligible for the Farmers Market Nutrition Program (FMNP). FMNP provides you with coupons to buy fresh, locally grown produce at a participating farmers market or roadside stand.
It can be a confusing process to go grocery shopping and figure out which healthy foods are allowed through WIC and which aren’t. Each state has slightly different requirements for labeling WIC-approved foods, and your caseworker can explain how food labeling is handled in your state.
State agencies also provide shopping guides to help you identify WIC-approved foods while at the store. Some guides, such as those provided to WIC-participants in Tennessee and Minnesota, even contain pictures of specific WIC-approved brands to make shopping easier.
Not every store is approved to accept WIC. Even within WIC-approved stores, you still might be restricted to using a specific lane, and you cannot use self-checkout. You can find a full list of WIC-approved stores on the WIC store locator. Stores that participate in WIC also post signs at all entrances.
The food you’re eligible to purchase each month varies, depending on which category you qualify for. For example, pregnant people are approved for slightly different food packages than those who are breastfeeding, and infants are eligible for different foods than children aged 2 to 4.
Most states approve WIC benefits packages in three-month time frames. You are then required to return to your local WIC clinic so the WIC staff can approve you for another three months. However, check your state’s WIC website for more details on current protocols. Many states have waived these return visits due to the coronavirus pandemic.
WIC strongly encourages people with infants to breastfeed. And the agency provides education and support to help you breastfeed successfully. However, if you choose not to breastfeed or (exclusive) breastfeeding isn’t an option, WIC provides infant formula.
WIC & COVID-19
Due to food-supply interruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the USDA approved new food substitutions and food sizes for purchase. For example, WIC participants can now purchase:
- Milk of any available fat content
- 24-ounce packages of bread when 12-ounce packages are unavailable
- 18-count eggs when 12-count cartons are unavailable
In addition to food assistance, WIC provides several other public health services for families.
How to Sign Up for WIC
There are several steps to applying and enrolling in WIC. Many states have changed their application protocols due to COVID-19. For example, many agencies are conducting WIC interviews over the phone and offering online nutrition training and curbside pickup of eWIC cards (like a debit card for your WIC benefits) and shopping guides.
Each state has slightly different steps and protocols for applying for WIC. However, you can expect the process to be somewhat similar no matter where you live.
1. Make an Appointment
To apply for WIC, you must contact your local agency and set up an appointment. You can find your state’s WIC offices through the USDA website. Every state agency also has a toll-free number you can call to make an appointment.
You can also make an appointment and find specific contact information for WIC representatives in your state through the National WIC Association.
2. Gather Your Documentation
Your WIC office needs you to bring several documents to your WIC appointment. Each state has different requirements, but you generally need to provide:
- Proof of all income sources for everyone in your household, such as a pay stub, bank statement, alimony or child support, interest or dividend statements, or pension statements
- Proof of identity for you and your children, such as a birth certificate, photo ID, military ID, or employment ID card
- Social Security numbers for each family member
- Proof of address, such as a utility bill, photo ID with current address, or rent or mortgage documents
- Immunization records for all children up to age 2
If you’re currently participating in SNAP, TANF, or Medicaid, you also need a letter of eligibility.
3. Gather Family Members
Bring each family member who is applying to receive WIC benefits to your appointment, including infants and children.
4. Meet With WIC Staff
At your appointment, a WIC staff member will talk to you about your income and nutrition needs and go over your documentation carefully to see if you qualify for WIC. In most states, a doctor, nurse, or nutritionist will conduct a health screening at this appointment to determine your health status. They will check your height, weight, and iron status.
If you’re approved, a WIC staff member or nutritionist will then talk to you about your family’s nutritional needs and determine the type of food package you qualify for. You will receive an eWIC card, which you use like a debit card for food purchases, and a shopping guide that details what you can and cannot buy through the program.
Using WIC at the Store
Until very recently, WIC participants received a monthly check or voucher they could use to purchase food. However, as of Oct. 1, 2020, states must implement WIC electronic benefits transfer (EBT) cards. These are also called eWIC.
Once your caseworker approves you for WIC, your benefits automatically load onto your eWIC card and are available for use immediately. It’s important to remember you must use all your WIC benefits each month. Any funds you don’t use by midnight on the last day of your monthly enrollment period expire. Benefits do not roll over each month.
Some grocery stores have dedicated lanes set up to accept WIC. In other stores, such as large national chains, every lane can likely accept and process WIC payments. Some smaller stores might ask you to separate your WIC-approved goods from your other purchases so they can conduct two separate transactions.
When you’re ready to check out with eWIC, swipe your eWIC card and enter a PIN, just like a debit card. If you’re using two payment types, such as eWIC and SNAP or credit card, pay with your eWIC first.
The WIC foods you purchase automatically deduct from your account balance once you check out. Your receipt also contains a list of your remaining WIC food benefits broken down by food type and the expiration date of those benefits.
For more information on how to use eWIC at the grocery store, see the eWic YouTube video produced by Massachusetts WIC. While some of the information might be different from your state, the video still provides a good overview of what it’s like to shop with WIC.
WIC exists to ensure parents, infants, and children have the healthy, nutritious food they need to grow and thrive. The foods provided by WIC might be absent from your or your child’s diet when money gets tight. And there’s no shame in wanting to make sure you have healthy food on the table every night.
At first glance, it might seem like WIC benefits won’t add up to much from week to week. However, there are many different ways to incorporate these healthy foods into meal planning for your family. Once you’re familiar with your benefits, plan a menu and make a shopping list for what you intend to buy. You can also find many WIC-friendly recipes through the USDA’s WIC Works Resource System or EBTShopper.com. Your state agency may also have WIC recipe ideas on their website.
And if you need additional help, sign up for other food assistance programs to help feed your family.