Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op Now Accepting WIC!
Healthy Food Access…that’s the objective, right? Making better food available and affordable for more people. For us at Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op, it is an end we are always working towards and it is what was most on our minds as representatives from our Co-op, Brattleboro Co-op, and The Co-op Food Stores flew to D.C. to attend the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health on September 23, 2022. Our three co-ops were nominated as conference delegates by leadership of the Neighboring Food Co-op Association (NFCA) and the National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA).
When we first received an invite to the Conference, there was a collective wave of elation. Then came a wave of concern – how could we best use this amazing opportunity to serve co-ops and our goals for improved healthy food access? Luckily, one concern rose quickly to the top of the pile for Middlebury Co-op – WIC accessibility.
The WIC (Women, Infants, Children) Program is defined by the Vermont Department of Health in this way:
WIC is the USDA Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children. WIC provides food benefits, nutrition education, breastfeeding support, counseling, and programs for pregnant Vermonters, parents, and caregivers with children under 5.
There are many wonderful aspects of the WIC program, not the least of which is that it focuses on a specific subset of the population who is particularly vulnerable to the effects of food insecurity. At our Co-op, bringing the healthiest food possible to the population that qualifies for WIC is a priority. Expectant parents often find their way to co-ops during this unique time in their lives, as their concern over personal health and well-being intensifies. Unfortunately, before now, the current constraints of the WIC program made it impossible for our Co-op to meet the participation requirements.
The WIC program is based on a list of foods deemed to be particularly beneficial for WIC recipients. At our Co-op (and at many others), we operate under a set of Buying Criteria. Until recently, some of the products on the WIC food list did not meet our buying criteria. Much of the WIC list requires that retailers carry specific brands and sizes to qualify for WIC participation. Some entire categories (like peanut butter and fruit juice) did not allow any organic brand or product. To participate in the WIC program as a retailer, a store MUST carry a certain number of products that fit into every category, including conventional products and sizes which are only available through a handful of brands, many of which are restricted by our buying criteria. The way this system operated, Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op could not accept WIC cards as payment for any products, even the ones on the list that we can carry on our shelves.
Back in 2022, Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op, Brattleboro Co-op, and The Co-op Food Stores brought this issue to the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health. It was there our co-ops were able to meet and talk with Stacey Dean, Deputy Undersecretary of Agriculture for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services about WIC implementation issues. Stacey Dean listened, took our contact information, and promised to contact the regional VT WIC office. We were left with the assurance that we would be hearing from them, and the promise that “although they may not immediately solve the problem, there will be a thoughtful and intelligent conversation aimed at working through the issue”.
A few weeks later Andrea Miller, WIC Vendor Manager for the VT Department of Health, contacted our Co-op and began to work with us to add brands and products that Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op carried, or met our buying criteria. This was not the easiest of tasks. However, Andrea and Taylor Murray, WIC Nutrition Assistant, took the time to work with us, add the products we carried, help us find products that met our buying criteria and qualified for WIC already, and provide us with the training needed to become a WIC approved retail grocer. After more than a year of work, on Wednesday November 15, 2023, Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op received final approval and became a qualified WIC retailer. This is an amazing win for our community, for our Co-op, and for healthy food access!
If you or anyone you know qualifies for WIC benefits, you also qualify for our Food For All program. Our Food For All program provides an everyday 10% discount on all purchases (excluding beer and wine by law). Apply Here.