It isn’t always convenient for Katie Peterson, who has two young children, to collect the packages of food she receives through the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, better known as WIC.
“I don’t have a lot of free time, so coming down here can be kind of difficult at times,” said Peterson, who is from Starkville. “They often run out of stuff too, so when I’m here, I’ll have to skip a couple things that are on my list.”
Instead of taking the time to come to the Oktibbeha County WIC Warehouse on Louisville Street, she will be able to collect WIC-approved food products at local grocery stores in about a year, which she said “would be wonderful.”
Mississippi will close its WIC distribution warehouses statewide next year and instead administer the income-based nutrition assistance program at local grocery stores and pharmacies through an electronic benefit transfer (EBT) voucher system, Mississippi Department of Health spokesperson Liz Sharlot said.
WIC provides “nutritious foods to supplement diets, information on healthy eating including breastfeeding promotion and support, and referrals to health care” to low-income pregnant, postpartum and breastfeeding women, infants and children up to age 5 who are considered to be at nutritional risk, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture website. The program serves about half of all infants nationwide.
“Nutritional risk” comes from medically-based conditions, such as anemia, or dietary-based conditions, such as a lack of nutrients in a person’s diet. Applicants are also eligible based on income if they qualify for SNAP benefits, Medicaid or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), or if their income is between 100 and 185 percent of the federal poverty guidelines.
WIC foods include “infant cereal, iron-fortified adult cereal, vitamin C-rich fruit or vegetable juice, eggs, milk, cheese, peanut butter, dried and canned beans/peas, and canned fish,” according to the website.
Each county in Mississippi has at least one WIC warehouse currently. Lowndes County’s is located on Highway 45 North.
Each state’s Department of Health operates the WIC program individually, with funding and guidelines from USDA. The federal agency decided all 50 states must implement EBT cards for WIC by Oct. 1, 2020, so Mississippi will have no need for WIC warehouses anymore, and grocery stores will be a “one-stop shop” for low-income mothers, Sharlot said.
“For busy parents, I think it will be a saving grace,” she said. “I think the change will actually increase WIC enrollment.”
Compared to other states
Oktibbeha County residents Kimberly Meyers, who has two young stepchildren, and Mariam Reynolds, a mother of three, agreed with Peterson that grocery stores will be a more convenient means of WIC distribution.
WIC recipients have to set appointments to pick up their packages at the warehouse, Reynolds said, and she echoed Peterson’s statement that the warehouse runs out of products sometimes. She got her WIC products from grocery stores when she lived in Birmingham, Alabama, she said.
“You can go to the grocery store any time to get what you need, and you’ve probably got better options,” she said.
Selection and availability were not a problem for Peterson and her family when they lived in Illinois, which administers its WIC program at grocery stores, she said. According to the WIC website, the majority of states do this and only a few still use distribution warehouses.
“If I need milk and eggs, and they don’t have eggs (at the warehouse), I either have to get the milk and skip the eggs or just get nothing at all,” Peterson said.
Even so, the WIC program is “a big help” to Meyers’ family, she said.
“They give us a lot of milk and fruits and veggies, and it’s all fresh and not just canned,” Meyers said. “They give us a variety of everything.”
WIC’s transition from warehouses to grocery stores is still in the early stages of searching for and authorizing grocery stores and pharmacies as vendors, so nothing is final yet, but “the wheels are in motion,” Sharlot said.
The state will designate a new location for the health checkups that WIC recipients currently receive at the warehouse to determine their continued eligibility, she said.
Peterson said she is very much looking forward to getting WIC foods from grocery stores again.
“I’ve told my husband several times that I miss the way Illinois did things,” she said.