Food policy in the real world

Posted on Mar 5 2014 - 7:48am by Christine Dickason

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) provides low-income pregnant, breastfeeding, and postpartum women, as well as infants and children up to age 5, with nutritional foods, health care, and health-related education classes. It is an important and effective program nationwide, contributing to the 43 percent decrease in obesity in young children over the past decade.

In most states, the WIC program functions like SNAP: recipients purchase food in grocery stores through the Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) system.

Mississippi does things differently.

We are the only state in the country that requires WIC recipients to go to “WIC Distribution Centers.” Not sure what that means? Neither was I, so I did what most legislatures fail to do: I went to one of the distribution centers to see how policy looks in the real world.

The “center” is not conveniently located, placed on the outskirts of town. About the size of a large classroom, the center contained just a few pallets of food.

WIC recipients must apply in person at the State Department of Health and present several forms of identification. If accepted into the program, they receive a list of allotted products, which they must pick up at one of the distribution centers. Individuals can only visit the store once per month. The hours of operation vary, but are typically open a maximum of five days a week between the hours of 8am and 5pm.

I walked through the center, perusing what choices a WIC recipient might have. The only fresh fruits available were oranges and apples: sweet potatoes were the only fresh vegetables. There were canned vegetables, but the list of ingredients was longer than I can recount here, and with 560 mg of sodium per serving (1/2 cup), I knew this was junk food in disguise.

Other items in the store included liquid eggs, infant formula, bread, cereal, powdered milk, peanut butter and dried beans. The peanut butter contained hydrogenated vegetable oil, a clear sign that this is not the healthy protein that children need and deserve.

As I left the store, discouraged by what I had seen, I felt that I could at least be hopeful for the future. Per the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, states are required by 2020 to use EBT systems for WIC programs, so that individuals can make their purchases in grocery stores. Unfortunately, the mandate to switch WIC to EBT systems includes an exemption for states encountering “unusual barriers,” which is something I foresee Mississippi claiming. But maybe I was making hasty assumptions—had Mississippi taken any steps towards the transition?

To find out, I called the Mississippi Department of Health. I mentioned the changes to a woman within the WIC department. She said they were currently under no such transition. Perplexed, I asked her if she had heard about any changes occurring in the near future. Yes, she said, but that’s not until 2020.

This experience was incredibly frustrating. Mississippi’s current structuring of the WIC program contains too many barriers for women and their children to access healthy, nutritional food. Not only is it a matter of health, but it is also a matter of human dignity. The system perpetuates the stigmatization of people who receive government assistance and does not encourage access. The barriers have clear consequences: a Harvard study reported that of 131,155 eligible Mississippi WIC recipients in 2010, only 75.8 percent participated.

Not only is it failing the people who need it, but it also is economically inefficient. In FY 2010, the federal government gave Mississippi over $74 million to purchase WIC food. Those funds were used to purchase bulk orders from large grocery chains. The structure of this system thus crowds out local stores and farms, as they are not able to participate in this economic revenue stream. Moreover, the distribution centers require federal and state money to be used for staff salaries, rent, and general operation—all of which would be unnecessary if individuals could use their benefits at existing markets.

The state cannot fail to take concrete steps towards the new system. The complacent attitude is maddening, as these policies impact real people every single day. Today is the day to begin to work towards real change—not next week, or next year, or in 2020.

Christine Dickason is a junior Public Policy leadership major from Collierville, TN.

Christine Dickason