On March 16 2020, the Facebook page “Vote Common Good” shared a screenshot of a tweet about social distancing, WIC-approved items, and conscientious coronavirus stock-up shopping:
Labeled “a practical way to show kindness,” the post involved a March 15 2020 tweet by @SuitUpMaine:
The tweet also showed a photograph of a supermarket shelf price label. In tiny print next to the sale price of two for $5, “WIC” was visible. The tweet advised shoppers “stocking up for social distancing” to avoid purchasing items with a “WIC” symbol next to the price. According to @SuitUpMaine, those reliant on WIC for food would not be able to purchase anything if a store ran out of WIC-approved items:
When stocking up for #SocialDistancing, if an item has a WIC symbol beside the price, get something else. People who use WIC to feed their kids can’t switch to another brand or kind of food. If a store runs out of WIC-approved options, they will go home empty-handed. #mepolitics
Backing up, WIC is an acronym for the US Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children:
The WIC Program aims to safeguard the health of low-income women, infants, and children up to age 5 who are at nutrition risk by providing nutritious foods to supplement diets, information on healthy eating, and referrals to health care.
According to the USDA’s WIC FAQ, recipients of WIC’s benefits are provided “checks or vouchers to purchase specific foods” on a month-to-month basis, with an ongoing rollout of electronic benefit transfers enabling the use of cards for WIC benefits in some states (all states by October 2020.) WIC listed some of their approved items in that FAQ section:
In most WIC state agencies, WIC participants receive checks or vouchers to purchase specific foods each month that are designed to supplement their diets with specific nutrients that benefit WIC’s target population. In addition, some states issue an electronic benefit card to participants instead of paper checks or vouchers. The use of electronic cards is growing and all WIC state agencies are required to implement WIC electronic benefit transfer (EBT) statewide by October 1, 2020. A few state agencies distribute the WIC foods through warehouses or deliver the foods to participants’ homes. Different food packages are provided for different categories of participants.
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. Soy-based beverages, tofu, fruits and vegetables, baby foods, whole-wheat bread, and other whole-grain options were recently added to better meet the nutritional needs of WIC participants.
As noted on the USDA WIC site, state-by-state variations in the administration of benefits are a factor in how WIC participants can obtain or receive food. Some states use delivery, bringing foods to WIC recipients’ homes. Benefits also vary for different categories of recipients.
The tweet from @SuitUpMaine tweet made reference to stores running out of WIC-approved items as a direct result of unusual demand caused by coronavirus-related conditions, such as social distancing (reduced contact with the public) and wide-scale stocking up among all people, including WIC recipients. On the Kansas Department of Health’s website, a PDF page of guidance (from 1996) for cashiers and store employees about WIC featured a section about out of stock items.
The information provided on that guidance was broadly dated and specific to supermarket employees handling WIC transactions. On page two, the item numbered “27” referenced out of stock WIC-approved items, referencing store discretion for approved items and advising clerks:
If the least expensive brand – usually a store brand – is out of stock, [WIC recipients are] allowed to get the next least expensive brand available.
Point number 53 did as well, reiterating:
Also, the customer should always select the least expensive brand of milk available on your shelf. If the least expensive brand – usually a store brand – is out of stock, the customer is allowed to get the next least expensive brand available.
Points 53 through 57 had to do solely to out of stock WIC-approved items, describing a “list of alternates” from which WIC recipients could choose should WIC-approved items be unavailable:
54. Out of stock items
55. Occasionally, stores may run out of a particular food item. This doesn’t happen very often because there are usually plenty of WIC items in stock.
But if it does happen, we do not issue rain checks. The customer must pick an alternate from the list.
56. One exception is Baby Formula. It must always be bought in the exact brand, size and quantity specified on the food instrument.
57. From time to time, changes may happen on WIC approved foods that are added to the WIC Program. Your manager should keep you informed about these changes. Basically remember, if a particular brand is printed in the WIC Program Booklet, approved foods section, that brand must be purchased.
Again, that guidance was specifically dated (March 1996) and relevant to a specific state (Kansas), details alluding to WIC’s changes over time and individualized features based on WIC recipients’ home states. Undated guidance for retailers in Connecticut [PDF] also mentioned that the next available, least expensive brand was acceptable to substitute.
Individual state guidance, such as the New York State WIC shopping guide [PDF], often described extreme restrictions and onerous requirements. Commonly, WIC recipients were advised to go to other stores if all items were unavailable:
Q. If the store is out of an item, can I get a rain check?
A. No! Stores may not give you a rain check for WIC foods. If a store doesn’t have all the WIC foods listed on your check, ask the store manager if the foods are in stock. You may have to go to another store if all foods are not available.
“Q: Can I substitute another brand if our store is out of the brand on the WIC Program Booklet?
“A: No. Substitutions are never allowed. If your store is out of the specific brand the participant wants, the participant can go to a different WIC authorized vendor.”
“Sell only what’s on the check—no substitutions are allowed … If a WIC customer needs a WIC approved food that is not in stock, do not issue a rain check or allow them to come back to the store to get the missing item.”
The USDA’s website hosted a March 6 2020 press release about food security in Washington — the first state with a large number of COVID-19 cases. Titled “USDA Makes It Easier, Safer to Feed Children Amid Washington State Coronavirus Outbreak,” it described emergency measures to ensure food security for children in low-income families through June 2020:
WASHINGTON, March 6, 2020 — The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has approved a request from Washington State to allow meal service during school closures to minimize potential exposure to the coronavirus. These meals are available at no cost to low-income children, and are not required to be served in a group setting, to ensure kids receive nutritious meals while schools are temporarily closed.
“USDA stands with the people of Washington State as a part of a federal-wide coordinated response,” said Brandon Lipps, Deputy Under Secretary for USDA’s Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services. “The flexibility provided by the waiver approved today will help ensure that our children get wholesome meals, safeguarding their health during times of need.”
The waiver announced today is effective immediately and will continue through June 30, 2020. USDA stands ready to provide additional assistance to the people of Washington State and other areas impacted by the coronavirus as allowed by law and in coordination with the much larger government-wide response.
All Food and Nutrition Service programs – including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); Special Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC); and the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs – have flexibilities and contingencies built-in to allow them to respond to on-the-ground realities in the event of a disaster or emergency situation. For more information about the coronavirus response across USDA, please visit: www.usda.gov/coronavirus.
USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service administers 15 nutrition assistance programs that leverage American’s agricultural abundance to ensure children and low-income individuals and families have nutritious food to eat. FNS also co-develops the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which provide science-based nutrition recommendations and serve as the cornerstone of federal nutrition policy.
In the press release, the USDA said that all three programs (including WIC) “have flexibilities and contingencies built-in to allow them to respond to on-the-ground realities in the event of a disaster or emergency situation.”
Readers were directed to a specific USDA page about its coronavirus response. One of the questions answered on that page (“What is the USDA doing about access to food?”) had to do with shortages and, specifically, supplemental food assistance programs like SNAP and WIC:
A: USDA is monitoring the situation closely in collaboration with our federal and state partners. FNS is ready to assist in the government-wide effort to ensure all Americans have access to food in times of need. In the event of an emergency or disaster situation, Food and Nutrition Service programs are just one part of a much larger government-wide coordinated response. All of our programs, including SNAP, WIC, and the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs, have flexibilities and contingencies built-in to allow us to respond to on-the-ground realities and take action as directed by Congress.
Learn more about available FNS flexibilities to help ensure food access during the pandemic response, please visit: www.fns.usda.gov/disaster/pandemic.
Again, the USDA described contingencies “built-in” to WIC and SNAP for situations precisely like the COVID-19 pandemic. The USDA linked to another page (“FNS Program Guidance on Human Pandemic Response”), and a first section — “Automatic State Flexibilities.” The USDA repeated that “USDA/FNS nutrition assistance programs, including SNAP, WIC, and the child nutrition programs, have flexibilities that allow them to respond to on-the-ground realities and support response and recovery efforts,” adding more detailed information about access:
In SNAP, state agencies can allow applications online (including via mobile app), by mail, or telephone, can extend certification periods to the maximum available, and can streamline the program by exempting households from certain requirements for good cause.
In WIC, states may postpone certain lab tests for up to 90 days, extend certification periods for up to 30 days, and provide up to three months of benefits in advance.
In school meals and other child nutrition programs, states may combine operations from multiple entities to serve and claim meals at a centralized location and expedite approval of summer feeding sites that may operate during unanticipated school closures.
In the food distribution programs, states have flexibility to adjust for the types of commodities provided in The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), and to provide deliveries to homes or other convenient pick-up points, or allow participants to have a trusted representative pick up their food packages from the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) or the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP).
According to that page, states might provide up to 90 days of benefits in advance to WIC recipients, extend periods of certification, and add to programs to provide food while schools were closed. Its fourth paragraph reiterated that states “have flexibility to adjust for the types of commodities provided” during emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic, and it explained additional assistance provided during such periods. Specific guidance about out of stock WIC-approved items in supermarkets and substitutions was not described.
The USDA further noted that it may grant waivers when necessary and to allow substitutions so that WIC recipients are not forced to go hungry during times of crisis:
In WIC, USDA can allow states to conduct certification online or by phone, waive certain documentation requirements when they present an unreasonable barrier to participation, and allow states the option to substitute certain food package items with similar items when WIC-approved foods are unavailable.
Points three and four involved increased (not decreased) access to food during a crisis, emphasizing the role of states in increasing access:
In school meals and other child nutrition programs, USDA can waive the requirements that meals are served in group settings, allow meals to be served at school sites during unanticipated school closures, allow school program operators to modify meal components or service times, and waive certain administrative requirements. When a Federal Major Disaster Declaration has been issued, USDA can allow summer and child care operators to modify meal components, and waive additional administrative requirements.
In the food distribution programs, USDA can allow state flexibility to set TEFAP income eligibility, certification duration, method of certification, and residency requirements, allow flexibility in the foods included in the CSFP and FDPIR food packages when approved foods are unavailable, and in major Presidential disaster declarations allowing individual assistance and certain other emergency situations, allow states to provide a household commodity distribution program without verification of residency or income.
… States can employ these flexibilities as they develop a pandemic response strategy customized to the needs of their respective populations. They are encouraged to work with local public health officials, in coordination with other federal, state, and local programs, to understand the conditions and constraints under which these may be most appropriate and effective.
A linked, undated general Q&A about USDA programs and pandemics [PDF] mentioned “social distancing” as a factor in food access:
During a human pandemic if vaccine is unavailable, the key public health intervention to slow the spread of the disease will be social distancing. Current WIC Program regulations provide flexibility with regard to physical presence, adjusting certification periods and mailing of food instruments which can be used at the State agency’s discretion, including situations that would require social distancing.
In 2017, the USDA issued [PDF] guidance to states for coordinating WIC during disasters. A section for vendors described scenarios wherein WIC-approved items might not be available (both for food and formula, separately):
If it is not possible to provide the exact brand items for the other foods listed on the out-of-State WIC food instrument, a similar item may be substituted from the receiving State’s WIC-approved food list.
On March 14 2020, the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC) issued a press release lauding the House of Representatives’ passage of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (H.R. 6201). FRAC described new bill provisions affecting recipients of SNAP and WIC, specifically a temporary increase in funding:
With this bill, USDA will have additional authority to issue waivers to support access to the child nutrition programs, including issuing nationwide waivers which would reduce paperwork for states and help more schools, local government agencies, and community organizations quickly adapt and provide meals, waivers that can increase programmatic costs, and waivers to adapt meal pattern requirements in response to disruptions to the food supply. In addition, USDA also will have the authority to allow child and adult care centers to operate as non-congregate sites.
In addition, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act provides $500 million for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women Infants and Children (WIC) to provide access to nutritious foods to low-income pregnant women or mothers with young children who lose their jobs or are laid off due to the COVID-19. The Act includes $250 million for increases in meals provided by senior nutrition programs housed in the Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Community Living. Food banks and emergency food providers will also receive much-needed commodity support.
Neither the press release nor the bill in question [PDF] mentioned WIC-approved item substitutions. Some states issued updates or guidance specific to WIC, but it tended to involve program eligibility and in-person appointments — such as a COVID-19/WIC memo issued by Minnesota’s Department of Health on March 13 2020 [PDF].
UPDATE: We contacted [Maine legislator] @SenAngusKing about this. His staff learned from the USDA that state WIC programs can request waivers to allow for substitutions. We’re now working with Maine legislative leaders to request these waivers. We urge people in other states to do the same!
Waivers can be issued immediately, so we are hopeful the lag time won’t be too long. Meanwhile, we continue to ask people to be mindful of supplies of WIC-approved food items and choose other items for purchase.
Sorry…we meant a statewide waiver from USDA that would automatically allow substitutions for all WIC recipients in Maine. It isn’t as immediate as we need, which is why we are asking others to leave WIC-approved foods on th3 shelves for those who need them.
A COVID-19 economic relief bill on March 14 2020 affected (and expanded) WIC access, but it wasn’t clear substitutions for WIC were available to all WIC recipients in all states as of March 16 2020. @SuitUpMaine’s advice appeared at a time where all shoppers faced limited availability on store shelves.
Nevertheless, we were unable to find information suggesting that WIC restrictions had been relaxed to allow substitutions — only information from the USDA that the agency was empowered to allow them, making @SuitUpMaine’s advice worth taking into consideration in every state.