U.S. Congress

Opinion: Congress should match food retailers’ commitment to women, infants and children

A program that helps millions of families access healthy food could face a $1 billion shortfall – if Congress fails to act.


The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently warned that a program that helps millions of families across the country access healthy food and nutrition services could face a $1 billion shortfall if Congress fails to act, forcing aid for millions of pregnant women, new mothers and their children to be delayed or denied. 

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC, is a federally funded program, administered by the states, that dates back half a century. WIC is founded on three pillars of support: nutritious food packages, education and empowerment, and health care access. Its mission is to promote the health and well-being of low-income pregnant women, new mothers, breastfeeding mothers, infants and children up to age 5 who are at nutritional risk.  

Through partnerships with food retailers and health care professionals, each month WIC provides services to millions of people from these vulnerable populations, including nearly 40% of all babies born in the United States. The program serves as a critical lifeline during the most important stages of development for young children, and during a period when proper nutrition and care for mothers is essential.  

Participation cuts across geographic and ethnic divides, fostering a cycle of wellness that benefits not only the families involved, but their communities, local economies and states as a whole. As food insecurity has increased in recent years, so has WIC usage. In Pennsylvania, nearly 10% of all children under the age of five are part of the WIC program. In January, Pennsylvania’s WIC program participation increased to more than 179,000 participants, up 2,000 from December and more than 20,000 from the same time last year. 

Meeting this need are more than 1,300 WIC-authorized food retail locations across Pennsylvania. Participating businesses range from large supermarket chains to small,  independent grocers. But whether large or small, the level of commitment is the same, and so are the requirements. A retailer must go through a comprehensive application process that involves a thorough review, completion of a training program as well as ongoing requirements related to stocking levels, recordkeeping and reporting.  

Once part of the program, businesses face ongoing challenges. Food prices can routinely exceed the amount retailers are reimbursed by the program, particularly when they rise very quickly, like during last year’s avian influenza outbreak, when the cost of eggs swiftly exceeded the approved reimbursement rate. Integrating with WIC’s EBT system can also require additional technology and training. In addition, retailers must carry products and quantities set by the state based on federal guidelines. This can mean difficult choices for locations with limited shelf space.  

Far from being a large moneymaker, participating in WIC can come at a very real cost for retailers. Nevertheless, many stores do opt to participate – and continue to remain – in the program because they believe in the value to families and the community that goes beyond the bottom line. 

When it comes to helping families in need, food retail has answered the call. 

However, despite years of success in achieving healthy outcomes for mothers and their children, the program is in dire straits. USDA reckons that if WIC is not properly funded as part of congressional budget negotiations this year, states would likely be obliged, at minimum, to implement waiting lists for new and renewing applicants. Given the size of the possible shortfall, participants across all categories – new mothers, young children and babies – would be forced to wait for desperately needed assistance, through no fault of their own. 

For decades Congress has recognized the importance of the WIC program and fully funded it on a bipartisan basis. Failing to do so now, at a time when demand is greater than ever, would signal that our priorities have shifted and that this country is no longer committed to helping every eligible mother or child in need. 

Beyond the basic necessity of keeping the program running, there is much lawmakers can do to improve how WIC works for families. 

One common frustration among participants and retailers alike is how complicated it can be to obtain WIC-approved items. In fact, recent reporting has found that eligible mothers at times forego their benefits because of the hassle. That is a needless failure of the system. 

If you have ever walked out of the supermarket carrying more than you planned on buying, you know that food retailers are experts at making it easy to get what you need. Lawmakers should heed the industry’s suggestions on how to improve the WIC shopping experience to gain more, and better, outcomes. 

Retailers have long called for more flexibility when it comes to providing approved foods to participants. The program should allow the use of existing or flexible pack sizes to allow smoother integration of new food packages, do more to allow substitutions, particularly during emergency declarations and national shortages, and act to ensure stores – and parents – have reliable access to infant formula. 

There are also changes that could make it easier for stores, especially smaller independent businesses, to participate in the program. Streamlining the authorization and onboarding process, and lengthening the reauthorization period for stores in good standing, would help businesses focus on serving customers rather than battling administrative hurdles. 

Pennsylvania’s WIC office and its dedicated public servants deserve a great deal of credit for working with the retail community to maximize the potential of what can be done under existing funding levels and program rules. In many ways, WIC is a successful proof-of-concept for the idea that public-private partnerships can truly succeed. 

Fundamentally though, WIC’s continued success depends on federal support. Anyone with children knows, at an instinctive level, just what a difference a nutritious meal can make. Food retailers know it as well. It is vital that Congress shows it remains as committed to this important program as they are.

Alex Baloga is president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association and sits on the Pennsylvania WIC Advisory Board.

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