What’s Happening with WIC Online Purchasing?

Published on Oct 11, 2021 in WIC

The Issue

At the start of the pandemic—as the world went into lockdown—we heard from so many of you about a key challenge to accessing food. Californians could shop online with their CalFresh benefits, but this option was still out of reach for thousands of families who relied on WIC.

We heard from parents, including Lily, who worried about the health of her family every time she had to leave her home to go shopping. “It’s been crazy because I’ve been trying not to go out,” she shared.

Families who relied on both WIC and CalFresh expressed their surprise and disappointment when they learned they couldn’t use both programs to buy food online. “We can order online, like this is going to be a game changer. And then we find out no, it's not going to be the same,” Angelique shared.

Like many of the stories we heard over the last year, it was heartbreaking. Just as public policy can be a source of tremendous good, it can also hurt the individuals it intends to benefit. In this case, rigid policies made it impossible for the WIC program to adapt to an emerging and pressing need for thousands of women, infants, and children in California, and many more across the nation.

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Early Progress

After hearing these stories, we joined our partners at the National WIC Association to help put pressure on the Trump Administration to lift the cashier presence requirement for WIC shopping. WIC’s requirement that families buy groceries in front of a cashier was a major barrier. We launched a media advocacy campaign and asked reporters to cover the issue. California’s advocates lent their voices and we partnered with Parent Voices and the California WIC Association to help moms like Lily and Angelique tell their stories in the San Francisco Chronicle, the California Report, Time Magazine, and local media outlets throughout California.

By September of 2020, after hearing from advocates across the United States, the cashier presence requirement for WIC was lifted and the United States Department of Agriculture awarded the Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition $2.5 million to develop and test solutions. But adoption was low and challenges remained.

We joined a working group of the National WIC Association dedicated to finding solutions and helped identify potential policies and processes for making online purchasing a reality. We met with California grocers and also asked the state to do all they could to bring online purchasing to California. Our partners at the California WIC Association worked with us every step of the way. Under their leadership, we also asked members of Congress to advance solutions. In December of 2020, Congress passed the Consolidated Appropriations Act for fiscal year 2021 which, among other things, mandated USDA convene a task force of experts—the WIC Task Force on Supplemental Foods Delivery—to study measures to modernize WIC transaction models, including online purchasing.

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The Work Ahead

Although some stores across the nation have begun rolling out online "ordering" with curbside or in store pick up, online "purchasing" is still prohibited in WIC program rules. But last week was an important step forward.

On September 30th, the WIC Task Force on Supplemental Foods Delivery released their recommendations report. In the report, the Task Force lays out a series of comprehensive recommendations to USDA to reduce regulatory barriers and unleash the potential of new WIC delivery systems. Now that USDA has received the report, they are in the process of outlining a plan to move forward. We anticipate regulatory changes will roll out in the future. To complement the work of the Task Force, competitive sub-grant awardees will also soon be announced by the Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition for five WIC State agencies, including Indian Tribal Organizations and territories to test out solutions.

We commend our partners, including the National WIC Association and the California WIC Association, for helping get us to this point. We know these changes to WIC can’t get here fast enough. We appreciate your persistence in helping push forward the changes that Californains need today.

We plan to inform our California partners as opportunities to help advance online purchasing arise. You can subscribe to updates by signing up for our newsletter and action alerts here.