To be eligible for WIC, applicants must meet certain eligibility requirements such as nutritional risk, financial need, and state residency. Eligible participants receive a monthly check, voucher, or electronic benefit transfer (EBT) to purchase specific foods. These foods, known collectively as the WIC food package, are designed to meet participants’ nutritional needs. Participants can redeem their benefits at local participating vendors.
WIC is not an entitlement program, which means that Congress does not set aside funds to allow every eligible individual to participate in the program. Instead, WIC is a federal grant program for which Congress authorizes a specific amount of funding each year for program operations. Funds are made available to state agencies and Indian Tribal Organizations that operate the program.
The benefits of WIC participation are many and well-documented. Mothers participating in WIC are less likely to have low birth weight or preterm babies, reducing the risk for developmental issues. Compared with eligible children who have not received WIC services, infants and toddlers participating in WIC have shown increased rates of excellent or good health and decreased risk of developmental delay and anemia. WIC participation is also associated with a lowered prevalence of overweight among young children.
Research by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service suggests that:
- Children who participate in WIC are more likely to be food-secure
- WIC reduces iron-deficiency anemia
- WIC increases birth weights
- WIC participation is associated with higher intakes of key nutrients
- Children under age three who receive WIC are more likely to be in excellent or good health than eligible children who do not receive WIC
- WIC decreases the risk of developmental delays in young children
According to the most recent available data, approximately 14 million women and children were eligible for WIC in 2013, and an average of 60 percent of those eligible participated in the program. Among eligible infants, nearly 85 percent received WIC benefits, but participation fell sharply after age one, dropping below 70 percent among one-year-olds and steadily declining each year. Just one in three eligible four-year-olds received WIC benefits. Among eligible women, non-breastfeeding postpartum women participated at a slightly higher rate than eligible infants, but only around 70 percent of eligible pregnant and breastfeeding women received benefits.
WIC participants receive a monthly check, voucher, or Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) that can be used at an authorized grocery store to purchase specific foods. Together, these eligible food items are known “WIC food package.” The exact items in the food package can vary from state to state, but typically, participants have several options from which to choose in each food category. These categories include bread, milk, cheese, eggs, fruits and vegetables, and infant formula and food. Each participant’s package will be slightly different based on whether the she is pregnant, postpartum but not breastfeeding, or breastfeeding. In addition, the package varies by the age of her child or children.
The WIC food package was revised in 2009 to reflect more recent recommendations in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Although there is still some variation by state, the WIC food package is much more in alignment with current nutrition guidance and better accommodates cultural preferences. The food package now includes fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grain breads (or other whole grains such as rice or whole grain tortillas), and the option of soymilk or tofu. Implementation of the new food package has required substantial resources to train WIC staff, work with grocery stores to ensure availability of foods in the package, and promote acceptance of the new foods among WIC participants.
Cooking Matters at the Store for WIC Parents is a free, guided grocery store tour that teaches low-income adults how to find items in the WIC food package and get the most nutrition for their food dollars.
Congress established the WIC Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (FMNP) in 1992 to help WIC participants access local fruits and vegetables as well as to expand the awareness, use of, and sales of these foods at farmers’ markets. Eligible WIC participants receive FMNP coupons in addition to their regular WIC benefits, which also include coupons for fruits and vegetables purchased in stores. FMNP coupons can be used to buy eligible foods from farmers or at farmers' markets or roadside stands approved by the state agency to accept the coupons. FMNP recipients receive nutrition education about the benefits of eating fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as how to select, store and prepare the fresh produce they buy with their FMNP coupons.
The FMNP currently operates through 50 state agencies, U.S. territories, and federally recognized Indian Tribal Organizations in addition to specific farmers’ markets across the country. In fiscal year 2016, over 1.65 million WIC participants received an average of $23 each in FMNP benefits.