Why the United States Needs a Modern WIC Program

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When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, one of the most immediate consequences was also one of the most severe: a spike in hunger. Those who lost jobs had less money to buy food. Supply chain disruptions led to empty store shelves. With fewer transportation options, even simple things like traveling back and forth to the grocery store became a lot harder. Suddenly, millions of additional families were having a much more difficult time putting food on the table. 

In response, Congress quickly turned its attention to one of our most critical and effective food programs: The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infant and Children (WIC), which serves more than 6 million women and young children. The increased flexibilities that Congress enacted three years ago make it much easier for families to sign up for and receive their benefits; these changes made an enormous difference for families nationwide, and even led to a significant increase in WIC’s child participation rate.

But unless Congress acts again, these flexibilities will soon expire. Our bipartisan More Options to Develop and Enhance Remote Nutrition in (MODERN) WIC Act — along with a companion bill introduced by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) — would make them permanent. We urge Congress to pass our legislation without delay. 

We have different political philosophies and represent districts on opposite sides of the country, but we couldn’t agree more on the importance of WIC to our constituents and the country. WIC serves women who are pregnant, postpartum and/or breastfeeding, along with young children up to age 5 — including about half of all infants born in the United States. In addition to monthly food benefits, WIC provides access to health screenings and referrals, breastfeeding support for new moms and nutrition education for young families.

WIC has proven to be one of the best investments we can make in children and families, with every federal dollar more than doubling its return on investment. Research shows that WIC improves health outcomes for women and babies, including lower rates of premature birth and infant mortality; strengthens cognitive development in young children; and provides better access to a variety of health care services. A series of updates to the WIC nutrition package implemented in 2009 is associated with healthier options being available in WIC-authorized stores and healthier food purchases among participants. And in the decade that followed those updates, the obesity rates among children ages two to four on WIC declined nationwide.

WIC is poised for additional improvements in the coming years. The Department of Agriculture is proposing a new set of updates to the nutrition package to build on the changes made in 2009. And a new rule would expand the ability of participants to make purchases with benefits online; with three-quarters of the U.S. population experiencing limited supermarket proximity, per the Congressional District Health Dashboard, an expansion of online purchasing makes a lot of sense. 

But as it did in 2020, Congress must do its part to ensure that families eligible for the program are able to participate in the first place. Prior to the pandemic, a person who needed to get certified for WIC participation, or pick up or reload benefits, had to do so in-person at a WIC office. Under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, participants could instead certify over the phone or via videoconference and pick up or reload benefits automatically, through the mail, or online. 

The MODERN WIC Act would make these flexibilities permanent while also providing funding for WIC offices around the country to upgrade their technology capabilities. 

We know that these flexibilities work. Since remote services became widespread, child participation rates on WIC increased by 13 percent. But we should not reserve modern service delivery for extraordinary circumstances. In-office visits can be especially difficult and time-consuming for parents juggling job and child care responsibilities, people with disabilities, and people in rural areas who may have to travel long distances. Streamlining these processes will ensure that participants receive the benefits they need as quickly as possible, and cut down on bureaucratic red tape that can add unnecessary delays. That’s why our bill is endorsed by a range of groups including the National WIC Association, 1,000 Days, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Alliance to End Hunger, American Heart Association and Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. 

Regardless of our respective political beliefs, we all want children to have the healthiest start possible in life. For decades, WIC has provided critical support to millions of families; the MODERN WIC Act would ensure it can build on its strong record of success well into the future. Families in Pennsylvania, Oregon and across the country are counting on us; let’s ensure their faith is well-placed. 

Source: The Hill