Online shopping comes to federal food assistance programs, but it’s complicated
Apr 11, 2022

Online shopping comes to federal food assistance programs, but it’s complicated

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The internet component of the women, infants and children nutrition program will take years to roll out, a WIC policy official says, but it's important that it does.

The pandemic sent grocery shoppers online like never before, and federal food assistance programs are trying to keep up. The main food stamp program, known as SNAP — for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — rolled out online shopping pre-pandemic, and it’s now available in almost every state. That hasn’t been the case for WIC, the acronym for women, infants and children. WIC is a similar program that gives credit to moms and kids for healthy foods, like milk, fruits and vegetables.

Late last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture started an online shopping pilot program for WIC in a handful of states. I spoke with Brian Dittmeier, who is senior director of public policy at the National WIC Association, which provides education and advocacy. He said it will be years before the program expands nationwide, but it’s important that it does. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

A headshot of Brian Dittmeier, senior director of public policy at the National WIC Association, standing next to some pink flower and smiling.
Brian Dittmeier (Courtesy National WIC Association)

Brian Dittmeier: WIC shoppers should be able to conduct their shopping in a manner consistent with, of course, SNAP households, but also with the general shopping experience. Commercial platforms have been around for a while. We’ve been able to place grocery orders, conduct our transactions online and get home delivery. All of these options should exist in the WIC space as well.

Meghan McCarty Carino: What are some of the biggest lessons learned from the SNAP rollout that WIC is taking into its program?

Dittmeier: In WIC, there are specific foods that WIC participants can purchase by the end of the month. And there can be a number of issues that emerge in the fulfillment process. So what happens as far as substitutions, and how is that resolved and reconciled with the available balance on the benefit card? The ability to sort of put a hold on benefits that have been ordered but not yet fulfilled and delivered is a key piece of what WIC providers need to look at. The second big piece that we’re looking at is around the accessibility and utilization of these platforms, particularly for low-income WIC participants, who especially live in rural, remote and hard-to-reach areas. And we know that the interest in using online options drops dramatically if participants have to pay out of pocket for home delivery options.

McCarty Carino: Typically, there are minimum stocking requirements for WIC food items. But in the early months of the pandemic, states could waive those. Obviously, there were a lot of supply chain issues. There still are, to a certain extent. And we’ve heard this is still a problem for some people — that they can’t actually order what they need online. Is technology going to solve that?

Dittmeier: To an extent, it will. I mean, online shopping platforms will remedy a lot of the challenges of in-person WIC shopping. The ability to filter for WIC products or see, essentially, virtual shelf tags that an item is WIC-approved. But again, we need to be thinking of those independent grocers and those small grocers that serve remote and rural areas. And having the technical assistance and support from USDA to scale up and share solutions across retailers is going to be really critical here.

McCarty Carino: We have been talking so far about WIC recipients being able to buy groceries online directly from stores. With SNAP, you can use a third-party delivery service like Instacart. Is that being considered for WIC?

Dittmeier: That discussion is certainly live. But there are a few pieces that need to be figured out before the third-party shopping services can really engage with WIC. And I think that the first piece is that WIC is a nutrition program and delivers certain nutrient-dense foods to participants. And so there needs to be adequate controls in place to make sure that any third-party shopping platform that’s trying to engage in the WIC space is respecting the integrity of the WIC benefit and is not trying to provide foods that aren’t approved through the WIC program.

Related links: More insight from Meghan McCarty Carino

Brian Dittmeier and other WIC officials and advocates attended a virtual conference this year to discuss the transition to online shopping. The trade publication Grocery Dive summarized many of the ideas they discussed, like the need to make sure retailers’ sites are optimized for mobile phones since home broadband access can be spotty in many rural and low-income communities. Retailers might also need to set up sites in multiple languages or offer options like telephone orders for people who lack internet-connected devices.

Here’s more details on the pilot program the USDA is running with the Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition. Online shopping is, or will be, available at select Walmart stores in Washington and Massachusetts, at Save Mart in Nevada, Hy-Vee grocery stores in Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska and Buche Foods in South Dakota.

Food insecurity was, of course, a huge issue during the worst days of the pandemic, when unemployment spiked and we saw those huge lines at food banks. The economy is in better shape now, with unemployment down almost as low as it was before the pandemic. But The Washington Post reports that food insecurity is on the rise again as pandemic relief programs end and prices for food — and pretty much everything else — continue to surge.

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