Broke in Philly

When you shop, don’t leave mothers using WIC empty-handed

The federal benefits can only be used for certain sizes and brands — and shelves are running dry.

A WIC food guide at a supermarket in South Philly

A WIC food guide at a supermarket in South Philly

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY
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Mothers who receive WIC benefits have found themselves in a tough bind during the whirlwind of pandemic panic shopping.

It’s not that WIC offices aren’t open. Although many offices are operating with limited hours during the coronavirus lockdown, most Philly locations are still open for people to load eWIC cards, according to N.O.R.T.H. Inc., the organization that manages the local offices.

It’s that WIC benefits, distributed via the federally-funded program that helps parents with fewer economic means feed their kids, can only be used on specific sizes and brands of product — and other shoppers are wiping shelves clean.

DeSarae Woodall Smalls has seen it firsthand.

The married Norristown mother of four, who receives WIC benefits, has gone grocery shopping almost every day since the outbreak reached the Philly area. Montgomery County, where Woodall Smalls lives, recorded the first local COVID-19 case. Like many shoppers, she noticed the typical doomsday essentials quickly went missing: toilet paper, bread, eggs, canned goods.

Also bare were shelves of formula — specifically those stocking Similac Advance and other Similac variations, which are the only types covered under WIC guidelines.

“People who can afford it are going in and buying all of these things and leaving nothing for anybody else,” Woodall Smalls told Billy Penn.

Officially called the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, WIC is different from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly referred to as SNAP or food stamps. SNAP has different distribution methods, qualification requirements and target recipients — and also gives families more leeway on what brands they can buy.

The Pa. Health Department is aware WIC recipients can only purchase certain products, according to spokesperson Nate Wardle.

Wardle said people should be aware of the vitality of formula, diapers and baby wipes for mothers who use WIC, “and work to make sure they are available for those who need them.”

North Philly resident Ke’anna Brown, a mother of three, used to receive WIC benefits, so she’s hyper-aware of how tough it can be to shop under the program. She’s witnessed the effects of coronavirus buying on mothers who do get the benefit, she said.

WIC limits cereal purchases to 8- or 16-oz boxes. A mother shopping with Brown picked up the wrong size.

“[She] was trying to get the sizes for WIC but they didn’t have that,” Brown said. “Whatever size it was, the lady had to put it back because her size wasn’t in stock.”

What to buy instead

Some supermarket chains have extended special hours for senior citizens, so older folks get a chance to pick up supplies.

The same hasn’t yet been done for mothers on WIC — so it’s up to others to make an effort.

“If an item has a WIC symbol beside the price, get something else,” advocacy group Suit Up Maine suggested on Twitter. “People who use WIC to feed their kids can’t switch to another brand or kind of food. If a store runs out of WIC-approved options, they will go home empty-handed.”

Here are some important food items WIC recipients can purchase with their benefits, and alternatives shoppers who don’t use WIC can grab instead:

Cheese

  • On WIC: eight or 16-oz packages of block, slized, shredded, stick or string cheese.
  • Not on WIC: other sized packages of cubed, individually wrapped slices, imported, deli service, organic and water-packed cheese.

Yogurt

  • On WIC: all natural plain, strawberry and vanilla whole fat Dannon Yogurt, plain whole fat ShopRite yogurt, a variety of low fat and non-fat yogurt brands and flavors, mostly plain and vanilla.
  • Not on WIC: Greek, organic and drinkable yogurts, yogurts with “non-nutritive sweeteners” and yogurts with mix-in ingredients.

Milk

  • On WIC: any brand of low fat or skim milk (unless individual benefits allow for whole or reduced fat milk)
  • Not on WIC: flavored milk, buttermilk, goat’s milk, organic milk, milk in glass bottles, milk with added nutrients like calcium or protein.

Bread

  • On WIC: A variety of brands offering 16-oz whole wheat bread packages.
  • Not on WIC: any other size of packaged bread, organic whole grain bread and whole grains with additives including seeds or extra calcium.

WIC benefits also do not cover pricier organic, free range and vegetarian eggs, peanut butter in containers sizes other than 16 to 18-ounces, or organic baby food.

Want some more? Explore other Broke in Philly stories.

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