Exploring the Impact of Montana’s Food Assistance Systems on New WIC Participants during the COVID-19 Pandemic

The Montana New Family Assistance Project: Exploring the Impact of Montana’s Food Assistance Systems on Food Security of New Participants of WIC during COVID-19

Objective: This research examined the experiences of newly enrolled WIC participants across one state in the U.S, with the understanding that COVID-19 deepened food insecurity and led to increased enrollments in WIC and other federal food assistance. This research aims to inform responsive food assistance systems during and after public health crises for Montana families.

Methodology: Data collection was conducted in Montana with a sample of newly enrolled WIC participants, and a subset of participants who also were enrolled in SNAP.  Surveys were conducted fully online through Qualtrics. A small sample of survey participants were invited to participate in an interview.

Findings:  7 in 10 survey respondents reported being food insecure. Half learned about WIC from a family member; the other half from a doctor or health professional.  9 in 10 said the WIC flexibilities allowed during the pandemic were helpful, including services over the phone, receipt of benefits remotely versus in person, and more foods being eligible. 8 in 10 respondents would be interested in WIC and SNAP online ordering.  Prior to participating in WIC, 6 in 10 respondents reported eating less expensive food, even though it was less nutritious, compared to 4 in 10 respondents after participating in WIC.  9 in 10 felt that WIC food benefits are very helpful.  Yet despite participation, 7 out of 10 still worried about running out of food.  

Recommendations: Policy, systems, and environmental changes may further support for WIC participants during a public health crisis.  

  • Recruitment: Use social networking approaches to normalize WIC participation.  Reduce stigma by communicating that individuals enroll in food assistance only when they need it
  • Enrollment: Make enrollment easy through remote options and caring staff
  • Eligibility: Expand WIC and SNAP eligibility.  Decrease confusion about eligibility.
  • Flexibilities: Increase communication about WIC and SNAP flexibilities when they are implemented.  Gather ideas for flexibilities from participants
  • Benefit Redemption: Expand WIC eligible foods.  Allow flexible WIC appointments, both remote or in person.  Increase benefit amounts for WIC and SNAP.  Improve in-store experiences for WIC and SNAP experiences.  Make online ordering possible for all WIC and SNAP participants.  Ensure WIC eligible foods are stocked in stores, especially in rural areas.  Label eligible foods appropriately in store.  Ensure check out process is seamless for the WIC or SNAP customer
  • Other Supports: Provide food skills education for those who are interested.  Ensure apps, such as WIC Shopper, can be accessed by all including technology to use in stores
  • Food Systems: Improve access to nutritious foods in all geographies. Address high cost of nutritious foods with incentive programs.  Address stigma around enrollment and participation in food assistance