AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

New research shows that WIC program participants mostly redeem their benefits at large stores, but small, local operations are still an important resource.

Across the United States, people who participate in WIC—the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children—overwhelmingly redeem their benefits at large retail stores, according to a recent USDA report that tracked the proportion of WIC benefits redeemed at various kinds of stores.

Larger stores tend to have a much greater selection, which has been especially crucial to WIC participants since 2009, when WIC revised its food package recommendations to include a wider variety of healthy options, particularly whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables.

Large retail stores—especially super stores and supermarkets—dominate the retail market for WIC participants. (Courtesy of the USDA)

The report, which is the first of its kind to examine WIC redemption patterns from the perspective of retail-store type, looks at data from 2008—before the revisions—and 2012, and concludes that while the proportion of benefits redeemed at standard grocery stores declined slightly, redemptions at superstores—which tend to be even larger and less expensive—increased from 34 percent to 42 percent.

This mirrors national trends in the grocery retail landscape, says Shelly Ver Ploeg, an economist at the USDA. Nationally, the share of grocery stores per capita has diminished by 11 percent, while superstores per capita have boomed by 78 percent.

However, it’s important to note that this data relies on national averages, and doesn’t hold true everywhere. Places like East St. Louis, Illinois, where nearly half of the population lives below the poverty line, have not been touched by this growth. According to the Belleville News-Democrat, East St. Louis only has two grocery stores and 42 convenience stores, some of which offered no produce other than potatoes and onions.

Ver Ploeg says that the market consolidation around superstores has strapped smaller operations; convenience stores per capita are declining at a rate of 33 percent, and smaller, specialty food stores have declined by 24 percent. And the report from the USDA notes that:

Because WIC-authorized stores must meet minimum stocking requirements, the larger variety of foods offered in the revised WIC food packages could present a burden for small stores and discourage them from participating in the program.

Recognizing this potential fallout from a program revision designed to further promote health, The National WIC Association launched Community Partnerships for Healthy Mothers and Children in partnership with the CDC’s Division of Community Health in 2014. Over the course of the three-year program, NWA is funding two cohorts of 32 local WIC agencies to improve access to healthy food.

The first cohort includes East St. Louis, where the resulting Make Health Happen coalition has backed smaller stores to stock more produce and healthier options under WIC guidelines. The News-Democrat reported that Terence Conrad, the owner of the Bond Street Fish Market, has begun stocking his store with fresh vegetables; apples, oranges, and bananas line the shelves where customers check out. A similar NWA-funded program in Louisiana, Healthy Plaquemines Now, is working with local farmers markets on paperwork that would enable them to start accepting WIC and SNAP payments.

The CPHMC program—coupled with WIC’s gradual transition from paper vouchers to EBT payments—is designed to ease access to healthy food at a greater variety of retail outlets. While the USDA report suggests a narrower picture for where WIC participants redeem their benefits, “WIC has a long history of entrepreneurial and visionary responses to need,” says Doug Greenway, the CEO of NWA. Potentially, future studies could reflect a much more diverse set of retail options for WIC participants.

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