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Half those eligible for the food assistance program WIC aren't using it, new USDA study finds

Only 51.2% of the people eligible for WIC participated in the program in 2021.
U.S. Department of Agriculture
A new study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children was underutilized. In 2021, it served only about half the number of those who qualified.

Only about half of the 12 million people who were eligible for the food assistance program commonly known as WIC took part, according to a new study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The report also found participation in states like Missouri, Kansas and Illinois for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children is largely underutilized and significantly lower than the national average.

“This report is for 2021, but the information in it is relatively consistent with what we had seen in some of the earlier years prior,” said Stacy Dean, the deputy undersecretary for the USDA’s Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services.

Yet, research has shown the effectiveness of the program in improving the health of mothers and children.

“There are a variety of reports out there that talk about how WIC improves birth outcomes, diet and nutrition. It decreases healthcare costs overall,” said Bill McKelvey, senior project coordinator for the Interdisciplinary Center for Food Security at the University of Missouri.

There are likely a number of factors that contribute to why the program was undersubscribed.

“In some cases, folks may have misconceptions about who is eligible or not, and so if they assume or think that they're not eligible, then they may not apply,” said McKelvey.

Other barriers include not having transportation to clinics, a stigma associated with participating in the program and challenges during the shopping experience.

“WIC provides specific foods in specific quantities generally, and the experience of trying to find exactly what benefit you qualify for at the grocery store and making it through the checkout process can be challenging,” said Zoë Neuberger, a senior policy analyst focusing on child nutrition programs for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Participation also varied amongst the different groups that are eligible. The coverage rates for pregnant women and children were much lower than that of infants.

Dean said the USDA has been investing in the program to solve these issues by improving outreach, working with states to streamline the enrollment process and even making it possible to use WIC benefits to shop online.

“I think those efforts are taking hold and paying off, so just in the last year, we've seen the program grow by 400,000 people,” said Dean.

Though it is not yet known how program participation in 2022 and 2023 compares with the number of people who were actually eligible, the data shows more people are using the program. The number of participants increased almost 7% between June of last year and this year, according to an analysis of the data from the Food Research and Action Center.

“We're up to 6.7 million participants in this WIC program,” said Geraldine Henchy, director of early childhood nutrition programs at the Food Research and Action Center, “and that surge holds throughout the Midwest.”

This could have to do with other programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program losing boosts they got during the COVID-19 pandemic, causing people to turn to WIC.

“We see a WIC food package that is more valuable, but the other reason we're seeing it is that we're seeing a surge in need,” said Henchy.

The Biden-Harris administration has called on Congress to fund WIC at the level needed to support the increased participation. Yet food assistance advocates are concerned that funding is already falling behind in this fiscal year, especially as food prices increased 2.4% in September over last year.

“The funding bills that are pending in Congress for the fiscal year that's already started, do not have enough funding for WIC,” said Neuberger.

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.

Eva Tesfaye was a Report For America corps member that covered agriculture, food systems and rural issues for KCUR and Harvest Public Media.