Waiting for WIC – Connections for Co-ops at the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health
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 ever on our minds. We are always researching and reaching out to find the healthiest food and wellness products that are available. We are constantly seeking to push the envelope to offer competitive prices on what we feel are the healthiest food and wellness products available.
Healthy Food Access 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. We three were nominated as conference delegates by leadership at the Neighboring Food Co-op Association (NFCA) and the National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA). We were so grateful for this opportunity and hoped to make the most of this once-in-a-lifetime chance to hear and be heard in a national arena dedicated to fighting hunger and promoting healthy food access.
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, the current constraints of the WIC program make it impossible for some Co-ops to meet their needs.
The current 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 – a kind of list of “dos and don’ts” that help us decide how “healthy” is defined for us (one very important criterion is that we focus on local and organic products). Unfortunately, some of the products on the WIC food list do not mesh with these criteria. Much of the list requires that participants look for specific brands and sizes to redeem WIC benefits. Some entire categories (like peanut butter and fruit juice) restrict access to any organic brand.
Brand and size restrictions are barriers to Healthy Food Access (as exemplified by the shortages of WIC-approved products like baby formula during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic). Concerning natural food Co-ops like ours, another aspect of the program presents a greater barrier. 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. Through this system, our co-op cannot accept WIC cards as payment for any products, even the ones on the list that we can carry on our shelves. In fact, as of the 2021-2023 WIC Product List, only a small handful of products are keeping us from being able to serve as a WIC participating store.
We brought this issue with us to the Conference on September 28th. When a colleague pointed out someone with a USDA nametag passing us, we literally leaped at the chance for a meeting, catching them none-too-gracefully by the shoulder! The shoulder belonged to Stacey Dean, Deputy Undersecretary of Agriculture for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services. After a quick introduction, we asked who she thought would be the appropriate contact to speak with about WIC implementation issues, and very graciously, she replied, “well, me!”. She heard us out, took our contact information, and promised to contact our regional 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”.
We are so grateful to have been a part of this conference and to have had the ear of someone so clearly connected to our WIC conundrum. This year, at Middlebury Co-op, we plan, once again, to try to apply for our Co-op to be approved as a WIC participating retailer. And we’ll be waiting by the phone for that call from our regional WIC office.