WASHINGTON – Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has announced a major step to make it easier for participants in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) to access nutritious foods.
The WIC Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) Final Rule will improve the shopping experience for WIC participants by requiring states to transition from paper benefits to EBT systems by Oct. 1, 2020, as required by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. Secretary Vilsack made this announcement during a speech at the 2016 National Anti-Hunger Policy Conference, hosted by the Food Research & Action Center and Feeding America, in Washington, D.C. The Secretary was joined at the conference by Dorothy McAuliffe, First Lady of Virginia and a champion of child nutrition programs. Virginia is one of 12 states and 4 tribal nations that have already competed the transition to EBT for distributing WIC benefits.
“USDA’s WIC Program has a longstanding history of improving the health of low-income women, infants and children at nutritional risk,” said Vilsack. “EBT is widely recognized as the optimal method of food benefit delivery, allowing WIC participants to shop conveniently and check out confidently. This final rule is one of many ways we continue to collaborate with states and other stakeholders to significantly improve the delivery of WIC benefits and protect the integrity of the program.”
WIC EBT is an electronic system that replaces paper food checks or vouchers with a card – similar to an ATM or debit card – that is used for food benefit issuance and redemption at authorized WIC stores. In Fiscal Year 2016, Congress appropriated $220 million help state agencies fully fund the transition from paper benefits to EBT. This ensures WIC can continue providing quality nutrition services while improving the effectiveness and efficiency of service delivery. USDA will continue to work closely with state agencies to support them throughout the implementation process.
The transition from paper benefits to EBT systems allows WIC participants to shop for items as needed rather than requiring them to purchase all items in one trip or lose the remaining benefits. Implementing EBT will also reduce checkout times and potential stigma associated with using food benefits. Additionally, WIC participants will no longer need to separate their WIC foods from their other grocery items.
Switching to statewide EBT will also strengthen the management and integrity of the WIC program by providing USDA and state agencies with previously unavailable data on the type, amount, and cost of foods purchased with WIC benefits. In addition, this final rule will significantly decrease the time and cost of processing payments for both vendors and the program.
Approximately half of all infants in the U.S. participate in WIC. The program provides nutritious foods to supplement diets, nutrition education (including breastfeeding promotion and support), and referrals to health and other social services to low-income pregnant, breastfeeding, and postpartum women, infants, and children up to age five. Services are made available through approximately 1,900 local agencies and 10,000 clinic sites. Forty-five thousand authorized stores offer healthy WIC foods to participants. More information about the WIC program can be found at www.fns.usda.gov/WIC.
The WIC EBT announcement is just one way that USDA is helping Americans access healthy foods. USDA has also recently issued a retailer standards proposed rule that will ensure stores that accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits stock a wider array of food choices. In addition, USDA is conducting a pilot to explore home delivery of groceries to homebound elderly and disabled SNAP participants.
Throughout March, National Nutrition Month, USDA will be highlighting results of our efforts to improve access to safe, healthy food for all Americans and supporting the health of our next generation. For example, since the program revised its food package in 2014, WIC has been providing participants healthier food choices to meet their needs during critical periods of growth and development.
WIC is one of USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service’s 15 nutrition assistance programs, which also include the National School Lunch Program, Summer Food Service Program and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Together, these programs comprise America’s nutrition safety net.