WIC got a benefit boost during the pandemic; advocates want to make it permanent

Since last spring, participants in WIC, the federal government’s health and nutritional safety net for low-income parents, infants and children, have been getting about three times as much as they normally get to spend on fresh fruits and vegetables. The temporary benefit boost, designed to address food and nutrition insecurity during the pandemic, has increased fruit and vegetable consumption among participating children and spurred more than $1 billion in spending, according to a new report from the National WIC Association.

But the “benefit bump” is set to expire at the end of March. Extending it is a top priority, said Brian Dittmeier, senior director of public policy at the National WIC Association, whose annual national policy conference begins today and runs through Thursday.

“The fruit and vegetable benefit increase has been one of the greatest steps toward nutrition security during the Covid-19 pandemic,” he said. “It’s really been a game changer in terms of access to healthy foods, especially for low-income families.”

Before the benefit increase, which affected some 4.7 million people, WIC gave families $9 per child and $11 per pregnant or postpartum person, to spend on fruits and vegetables each month. Now families get $24 per month per child, while pregnant and postpartum people get $43 per month, or $47 if breastfeeding.

The report, based on a survey of 10,000 participating families, showed children’s fruit and vegetable consumption rose by a quarter cup since the increase.

Extending or institutionalizing the increase could also help keep more children in the program, Dittmeier said. About 43 percent of all infants born in the U.S. get WIC benefits. Children are eligible until age 5, but the program has struggled to keep kids enrolled after their first birthday when benefits decrease. Many families decide the benefits aren’t enough to justify the paperwork and in-person appointments required to stay in the program. But that means they miss out on the program’s other offerings, such as health screenings, breastfeeding support and referrals to medical and social services

“The benefit needs to be large enough to serve as a carrot that brings families in and connects them with the programming,” Dittmeier said.

The National WIC Association and a broad coalition of anti-hunger and public-health groups are urging Congress to reach an agreement on an omnibus spending package that would extend the benefit bump. If Congress fails to reach an agreement, the increase could be funded by a stopgap continuing resolution. But any delay could disrupt benefits for families, who often get their benefits in three-month installments, Dittmeier said.

The coalition will have another chance to institutionalize expanded benefits for fruits and vegetables this spring, when the USDA reviews WIC’s food offerings and proposes any needed revisions, as it is required to do each decade. The National WIC Association is urging the agency to maintain the higher fruit and vegetable benefits, increase spending allowances for other nutritious foods such as seafood and to further align the program’s nutrition standards with federal dietary guidelines. A draft rule from the USDA is expected in April.

The report also recommended extending the amount of time that postpartum participants and children can receive benefits. Currently, benefits end at six months postpartum for adults, or one year for those who breastfeed. Children can receive benefits until 5. But under a bipartisan bill called the Wise Investment in our Children Act (WIC Act), postpartum benefits would remain in place for two years, which would set people up for healthier future pregnancies. The bill would also let children keep getting benefits until they turn 6 or start kindergarten, where they can access school meals.

Among the report’s other recommendations is to make permanent temporary pandemic-era changes that allow families to complete certain administrative tasks remotely, instead of requiring them to be done in-person at a WIC office, which often requires participants to arrange transportation, take time off work and find childcare. Since WIC began offering the remote option, the number of children enrolled has increased 10 percent, the report found.

Dittmeier said strengthening WIC’s offerings and reach will be crucial in addressing not just the hunger crisis that has accompanied the pandemic, but also worrying health trends, like an increase in childhood obesity.

“While we double down … to ensure that we’re addressing hunger, it’s important to maintain the nutrition angle as well, and to ensure that it’s not just access to food, but also access to healthy foods,” he said.