Making WIC Work
I can spot a WIC participant from three checkout lanes away. There is usually a growing line of unsuspecting shoppers lined up behind her while the cashier slowly rings up the carefully organized items. She has separated her food into little piles because she happens to live in a state that still uses a paper check system for the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Infants, Women, and Children known as WIC. The cashier scans each pile of groceries, asks for the corresponding check, signs it, has the WIC participant sign it, compares her signature to the master signature in her WIC folder, files the check into an envelope in the checkout drawer, and finally bags her items. Then the process begins again with the next group of items.
This is an example of things going well. If for example the wrong size item has been brought to the register — right brand, right product, but an 8.1 ounce block of cheese as opposed to an 8.5 ounce block — the process stops while the cashier calls for assistance over the loudspeaker. The “wrong” item is then taken back to its originating aisle by another employee who disappears for what seems like an eternity and finally emerges with the “correct” item. The item is scanned, the checks are examined, signed, filed, food bagged and it’s on to the next group of items. This tedious dance happens as people wander in and out of the backed-up checkout lane behind the exposed WIC participant whose business is on display for all customers and employees to see.
This is the experience of countless women who utilize WIC across the country. In a day and age where we can perform bank transfers on our cell phones, video chat with people across the globe, and access anyone’s information with a few clicks of a keyboard, there are still numerous states in America using a paper check or “voucher” system for their WIC participants.
Some states have implemented a debit-type card for WIC benefits, much like the benefit cards issued for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). These allow WIC clients to discreetly pay for their items through the credit card terminal. Most states however, still use a paper check system that is challenging and cumbersome at best. At worst, the paper check system is embarrassing, punitive, and a barrier to participation in the program. WIC enrollment declined 10.6 percent between 2010 and 2014 but the number of families applying for SNAP benefits rose during the same period. One of the reasons for this shift is the antiquated paper check system.1
Negatives aside, WIC is one of the most successful government programs to date for supplementing the nutritional needs of low-income women and children.2 WIC provides access to specific supplemental foods, nutrition education, and referrals to other social services for pregnant and lactating women and children up to five years of age. Eligibility is based on income needs, risk of malnutrition, and residency requirements in the state where benefits are obtained. The program is designed to provide nutritional supplementation and health information to populations at risk of childhood malnutrition, anemia, premature birth, infant mortality, and other nutrition-related concerns of childbirth and childhood.3
WIC began in 1972 amid a “rediscovery” of poverty beginning in the 1960s. Although poverty and malnutrition have always been a part of the American landscape, an increase in media and congressional attention turned the nation’s interest to the appalling levels of hunger in America. In 1962 Michael Harrington published The Other America, a book that shocked readers with its depictions of poverty in the richest nation in the world. Unfortunately Harrington’s book also contributed to the troubling “culture of poverty” thesis in the age of the Moynihan report. This government document blamed Black poverty on family structure as opposed to social barriers.4 In 1968 CBS aired Hunger in America, a documentary that exposed the extreme hunger affecting many Americans across the country. The film aired just two weeks after hearings in the U.S. Senate on malnutrition culminated with the formation of the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, nicknamed the McGovern Committee. These events created a long overdue focus on malnutrition and coincided with the turbulent social turmoil and civil rights activism of the 1960s.
In The War on Poverty, a collection of essays edited by Annelise Orleck and Lisa Gayle Hazirjian, historian Laurie B. Green explored a program that served as a prototype for WIC during the 1960s. In her essay “Saving Babies in Memphis,” Green documented the collaboration between the Memphis Area Project-South (MAP-South), a community organization federally funded through the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) during the War on Poverty, and the newly opened St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. MAP-South community organizers referred malnourished children to the pediatric nutrition clinic at St. Jude and sometimes had to literally carry in the most severely undernourished babies. At St. Jude the children received emergency medical intervention, enriched baby formula, and a “food prescription” for surplus commodities from the state agriculture department. The collaboration between MAP-South and St. Jude revolutionized care for Black women and children in Memphis because most hospitals and clinics still refused to treat Black patients late into the 1960s.5
Green argued that the MAP-South/St. Jude project was instrumental in the Civil Rights Movement because poor Black community organizers were the motivation behind the partnership. These women persuaded medical professionals to become involved in anti-hunger work in their high-poverty neighborhoods. Also, the collaboration inspired medical staff at St. Jude to publicly articulate the economic explanations for malnutrition, which served as a counterargument to the prevailing characterization of poor communities as dysfunctional or pathological.6 The partnership contested years of social thought that tied high levels of Black infant mortality to the presumed immoral behavior of Black mothers and out-of-wedlock births. The successful program became an early model for the national implementation of WIC.
After WIC became a permanent program in 1974, poor communities experienced difficulty in accessing the program. Annelise Orleck documented how early WIC enactment was sporadic and vulnerable to the political climate of individual states and regions. In her book Storming Caesar’s Palace, Orleck documented how community organizers in Las Vegas subverted conservative forces in Nevada, the only state that had not applied for WIC benefits by 1973. The women of Operation Life, a grassroots organization administered by poor Black women from the city’s Westside, wrote its own WIC plan for Nevada, lobbied the state legislature to accept it, and submitted their WIC proposal to the federal government. Their application was accepted in 1974, and it became the first WIC clinic in the country to be solely run by poor mothers working and volunteering as community organizers.
Many of the early manifestations of WIC were promoted and implemented by women who worked and lived in the communities they served. Since the 1970s WIC has provided essential healthy foods, nutrition information, and health referrals to millions of at-risk women and children in America. Presently, WIC is vulnerable to state and local powers when it comes to implementing how WIC benefits are disbursed and utilized by clients. Mandatory nutrition classes can feel demeaning, and face-to-face appointments pose real transportation and time barriers to mothers. Fortunately legislation enacted in 2010 requires that all WIC state agencies implement electronic benefit transfers by Oct. 1, 2020. This will overcome at least one barrier to WIC use as currently all but nine states have replaced paper checks with an updated system.
Mothers, particularly poor mothers of color, are significantly marginalized in our current political climate. What is apparent from these early WIC success stories however, is that grassroots organizing greatly increased the participation and access to nutritional support for poor mothers and children. As a former WIC participant who used an electronic system in Texas and a paper check system in New York, and who has experienced my share of rude and condescending comments from people in line behind me, I always try to stand in the checkout line behind the WIC mother. I do it as an act of solidarity and perhaps as a buffer between her and those who choose to verbalize their misguided social commentary. I’ll give a smile or a commiserating comment to the woman if she flashes me an “I’m sorry” look. It might not be much but it’s a gesture layered with historical meaning. Hunger and malnutrition are real and are the direct result of inequitable resource distribution in our country. Nevertheless, if we can remember how grassroots organizers worked to implement WIC in the 1960s and 70s, perhaps we can find the political will to increase WIC’s impact for the generations to come.
Harrington, Michael. The Other America: Poverty in the United States. New York: Macmillan, 1962.
Katz, Michael B. The Undeserving Poor: America’s Enduring Confrontation with Poverty. 2nd edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
Levine, Susan. School Lunch Politics: The Surprising History of America’s Favorite Welfare Program. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008.
Orleck, Annelise. Storming Caesar’s Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty. Boston: Beacon Press, 2006.
Orleck, Annelise, and Lisa Gayle Hazirjian, eds. The War on Poverty: A New Grassroots History, 1964-1980. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011.
- Pamela Prah, “Why Are Fewer Moms Applying for Safety Net Program?,” The PEW Charitable Trusts, April 30, 2012. Return to text.
- Andrea Carlson and Ben Senauer, “The Impact of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children on Child Health,” American Journal of Agricultural Economics 85, no. 2 (May 1, 2003): 479–91. Return to text.
- National WIC Association, “WIC Program Overview and History” Return to text.
- Michael B. Katz, The Undeserving Poor: America’s Enduring Confrontation with Poverty, 2 edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 20. Return to text.
- Laurie B. Green, “Saving Babies in Memphis: The Politics of Race, Health, and Hunger during the War on Poverty,” in The War on Poverty: A New Grassroots History, 1964-1980, ed. Annelise Orleck and Lisa Gayle Hazirjian (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2011), 140, 146. Return to text.
- Paul Zee, Thomas Walters, and Charles Mitchell, “Nutrition and Poverty in Preschool Children: A Nutritional Survey of Preschool Children from Impoverished Black Families, Memphis,” Journal of the American Medical Association 213, no. 5 (August 3, 1970): 739–41. Return to text.
Elizabeth Garner Masarik is a working on her Ph.D in history at the University at Buffalo. She studies Americans history with a focus on women and gender, particularly during the Progressive Era. Her research focuses on the formation of the welfare state.