My life on WIC

Confession: I promised myself I’d never go back on WIC again – Women, Infants, and Children food and nutrition service.

I used the program once before, for a foster son with special needs who lived entirely on Pediasure. He drank $10-$15 a day, and neither we nor his birth mother, to whom he was returning, could easily afford the out-of-pocket price of his food. WIC would supply monthly checks for three cans a day (their maximum), and we found another program to supply the rest. I’d cash out of a store with stacks and stacks of Pediasure, $100-$120 worth, and think, “That’s barely a ten-day supply.”

But WIC is not really about Pediasure. The purpose of WIC is to supply basic, healthy foods to pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers, and children within certain income brackets or special situations, such as children in foster care. Food is provided through specific monthly checks, redeemable at approved stores.

With our current foster case, we are well able to afford the children’s dietary needs. And honestly, I prefer independence. But the family member who cared for them before we arrived on the scene had worked hard to line up the children for the services they needed, such as WIC. My husband and I discussed this at length and agreed that until we are more certain of their future than we are now, it seems wise to leave WIC services in place for them, as potential assistance on their return to a birth or kinship home.

Each of the two children now in my care qualifies for an impressive list each month:

  • 3 gallons of milk
  • 1 dozen eggs
  • 1 pound of cheese, any kind, sliced or shredded
  • 4 cans of beans, or 16-18 oz peanut butter
  • 32 oz good yogurt
  • 2×64 oz 100% juice
  • 36 oz healthy breakfast cereal
  • 2×16 oz whole grains, such as bread, rice, or pasta
  • $8 worth of fruits and vegetables: fresh, frozen, or canned – no added sugars

That’s quite a dollar value, and a lot of great nutrition. Plus, I can easily imagine the thought that went into which foods would cover a child’s day. For breakfast, he could eat milk and cereal, or toast, or yogurt, with a glass of juice. For lunch, a peanut butter or fried egg sandwich, or a bean burrito with cheese, served with a side of vegetables or fruit. For dinner, creamy pasta with milk and cheese, or rice and beans, or a grilled cheese sandwich and a smoothie. That’s a great menu.

But the program is intensely frustrating for me.

For one thing, the guidelines are rigid, like coupon shopping on steroids. Only certain brands are approved for purchase, and only certain sizes or flavors within those brands. For example, Welch’s juice is approved, but only the 100% juice kind, and only certain flavors, some of which the store does not carry. Even bottles marked 100% juice are disqualified at checkout if they contain particular juice blends, including peach juice or coconut water. Who knew?

Now I am left with the choice of a) skipping the item entirely – once the check is cashed, any unpurchased items on its list are immediately cancelled, or b) running back a few aisles to exchange for the approved bottle, while the line grows behind me (in both length and impatience) and the toddlers wail in my cart.

I was given a WIC guidelines booklet, colorful, with helpful pictures of approved brands. I keep it open as I shop and read it like the Bible, gleaning new truths as I go. But there are still catches that get me. Baby food in the correct brand may be disapproved because it is sold in plastic containers instead of glass. Or maybe vice versa? I can’t remember. Any cheese, sliced or shredded? Okay, I’ll choose this shredded cheese blend. But that too is disapproved, though it is the correct weight and brand, because it is called “taco” cheese which includes seasonings.

(The cashier is like the Holy Spirit, who interprets the Bible and shows you illuminating stuff you never saw in there before. Also sometimes it’s not in there.)

For a choice like whole grains, I have many options: pasta, tortillas, brown rice, or whole wheat bread. I love brown rice but have been unable to buy it. At TOPS, one WIC-approved store, no approved brands are stocked. At Walmart, another WIC-approved store, I find Uncle Ben’s (check) whole grain (check) brown rice (check), but only in a two-pound bag. I am allowed 16 oz, and that size is not to be had for love nor money. Actually, I am allowed two pounds, but only 16 oz on one check and 16 oz on another check, which cannot be combined. All checks must be rung up separately.

I am a reasonably intelligent woman with money, education, time, and excellent reading comprehension. If I struggle with this, who exactly finds it easy?

WIC is an insightful, overarching program, and pays attention to optimal nutrition and fat-consciousness. Children two and under are issued checks for whole milk; children over age three, 1% or skim. Same with yogurt. I happen to think that milk fat is healthy fat for children, but what I think does not matter here. Uncle Sam hath spoken. (That was the King James version.)

Education and detail management is part of the curriculum: in exchange for all this free food, I and my qualifying children must visit the WIC office once every three months, where they are checked and weighed occasionally, and I am educated by video and pamphlet on things like child-appropriate portion sizes, the dangers of smoking and sugar, and the importance of toothbrushing twice a day. Here is what your child’s mouth will look like if you are not a good mom. Periodically, I must fill out a two-page questionnaire.

How much milk does your child drink each day? What kind?

Describe how you defrost frozen foods: under running water, in the refrigerator, on the counter, in the microwave?

Does everyone wash their hands before and after food preparation?

How many of these foods does your child eat: hotdogs, chips, undercooked eggs, yogurt, lollipops, popcorn, deli meat, etc. etc.?

Does your child use a bottle? Does your child go to sleep with the bottle or walk around with it during the day?

Check which items you have at home that work: running water, stove, refrigerator, freezer, microwave?

Do you ever have to choose between buying food and paying bills?

Now we are getting personal here. Will we write down what is true, or what we believe ought to be true?

I am treated with kindness in the WIC office, but it is assumed that I am in want of extensive redirection and training. Duh – otherwise I would not be in need. Right?

But when I really start tensing up is while cashing out in the store with multiple checks: an ordeal that takes twenty minutes, at minimum, depending on how experienced the cashier is, how many times she must call a manager to hit Override (our personal record is four), and how many food items I got slightly wrong. I always wish I could warn the people waiting behind me. I may text my husband, In a long line with a bunch of WIC stuff. Pray for me.

Or, if my fates are really pumping their pistons, I may be in this position when I get a text, “Second visit cancelled. Ready for you to come pick up children.” I was being smart and shopping without them. Now it will take me a half hour to arrive.

In spite of my stress and sarcasm, I am grateful. But also stressed and sarcastic. But also grateful.

Cashiers vary in more than skill. One snarled her hello at me and did not attempt further communication, after being greatly charming to the gentleman before me, who spent $300 out of pocket on his own groceries. Another said, “Honey, it’s a great program. I used to be on it too, when I had little kids, and there’s a lot more choices now than there used to be. Don’t you worry. We’re here to help you through this.” Whatever she’s being paid now as a TOPS manager, it’s not enough.

She is right. It is a great program: it’s just hard.

I always used to explain, “I’m a foster mom. This is new for me,” to make sure that everyone thought better of me and would praise instead of judge {blush}, but now I think of it as an interesting social experiment. Sometimes I just smile and hand over the checks.

I’ve found the poor to be kinder than the rich.

I have outlined a few of the problems. What creative solutions would you suggest for the program, or for people like me?

UPDATE: The WICShopper app now works in PA, for verification only.

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Nancy Overholt
5 years ago

I had foster children for many many years. I remember that headache too well !!

5 years ago

All I can say is “bless your heart” and there’s no southern sarcasm in that! I didn’t comment on your last post but I liked it. Thanks for writing.

Regina S
5 years ago

Shari, I was on this program when my girls were little. It was hard especially when I would get a cashier who didn’t take the time to see that I indeed had the right item before accusing me otherwise.

The WIC program is a great program but they really need to come up with a way to make it easier (and less humiliating) to the customer.

They were awesome when I was having issues with breastfeeding but their required classes made me feel like an educated high school drop out. I finally left the program when my youngest daughter was only about two because (this may sound weird) I started having a feeling of heaviness everytime I entered the building. The mental health office was upstairs and the county jail was around the corner.

I explained to my husband the uncomfortable spiritual stuff I was feeling and he agreed I shouldn’t go there anymore.

Anyway, I didn’t mean to ramble. I guess just make sure you buy exactly what the checks are for and if possible shop when the store is less crowded.

5 years ago

Bless you! Do you have a proxy who can cash the checks for you? Ryan or maybe your mom? (Your proxy may need to have the same address- I’m not sure-but it’d be worth a phone call). Being able to send my hubby to the store with our checks is a blessing to me!

5 years ago

I remember that headache when we did that 20 years . I can’t imagine what it’s like by now. You asked for suggestions on how to fix some of those issues. Well I think you know my suggestions and you know me well enough that if I wrote those suggestions out here in this public forum, there would be great repercussions. So I will stay silent. I would watch over the little fry sometime while you go wrestle with WIC checks.

5 years ago

Is there an app for that? =) They need to create an app for smart phones that you can use to scan the item on the shelf to see if it’s correct. There likely 101 reasons this isn’t an option, but it makes for a good suggestion anyway. =)

I do believe that foster moms are brave and strong and I bless you for being one of them.

5 years ago

1.mix the whole and skim milk together = 2% (sort’be)
2. Use the instant oatmeal in baked (since no other sizes are allowed)
3. Buy cornflakes for one of the cereals and blenderize or crunch it for breading, toppings, and meatloaf. Put it in the freezer. It keeps forever and doesn’t take half the space as the box in the cupboard.
4. Freeze the juice or make popsicles out of it.
5. Buy all the cheese. Shred and freeze (we can’t buy shredded).
6. Use yogurt for sour cream or mix it with sour cream or in veg dip. My gang never knew and I didn’t tell.
7. Use oatmeal for granola. Instant works in baked oatmeal too. You might need to add more of that WIC milk if you use instant but I know it works.

5 years ago

I’m listening! I always spend all my checks at once and try to go late in the day (8:30 or so) when the store is almost empty. But WIC shopping is still time-consuming.

I’m with you on the milk. I also wonder why they give so much juice, because it seems like empty calories. Do you know the reasoning for that?

4 years ago
Reply to  Shari Zook

I know this is long after the post, but I asked at the WIC office why they give juice. It’s because it is a cheap way to get the kids Vitamin C which helps absorb iron which helps to protect them from the lead in paint in old houses. So, cheap oj instead of good red meat!

I can so relate to everything in this post, and I so do not miss those WIC checks! While WIC shopping, I always wanted to wear a big sign that said, “My husband provides for me and our kids! I only do this because it’s part of foster care!”

Maybe you could be a smart aleck and fill out those condescending forms at the WIC office with the most erudite, florid, sarcastic comments you could concoct on the spur of the moment. Sort of getting your own back again.

And in response to my memories of the humiliation of those days as a foster mama going WIC shopping, hating to be mistaken for one of Those People, in my heart I hear, “He made himself of no reputation . . . ” Who knew WIC shopping could be a form of taking up your cross and following Him?

4 years ago
Reply to  Maria

<3 Yes. This.

Regina S
5 years ago

Regarding juice, I wonder why they give checks for juice when I keep hearing that nutritionists and pediatricians think juice should be avoided. Even my own doctor recommends my husband and I reduce our intake of juice.

5 years ago

Ah! Yes! I can so relate to this! The King James version and the holy Spirit cashier is just hilarious and right on!

5 years ago

Shari, I have no experience with this at all, but reading about it was informative. Thank you.

My mouth nearly dropped open when I read that each child only gets EIGHT dollars of fresh fruits and veggies per MONTH. That would barely cover two bags of apples where I live. How is that even close to enough?

My heart goes out to the people who depend on this service, although I’m so glad it’s available. Bless you for sticking with it.

5 years ago

Whew, my only WIC experience was helping two minimum-English Syrian ladies use it as Walmart. I used to think that I was a reasonably intelligent woman, too. Given the looks of everyone helping me, I am NOT.

L. Baer
5 years ago

Maybe you could combine your stress, sarcasm, and gratefulness to produce an educational video for THEM!!!
No, really, I think you must be partly angel to stick with it. God bless you!!

Hope Byler
5 years ago

Smiling here! Just the other day i found myself in a Walmart line behind a dear Mrs. Mom trying to check her WIC items through the till. Oh the eye rolling and muttering and cussing . . . and poor Miss Cashier called in reinforcements and they tried together to explain to Mrs. WIC Mom that some of her items were NOT proper and acceptable.

Whew — i wished to be a hundred miles (or at least one safe aisle) away . . . trying to look sympathetically at both unfortunate parties was difficult. . .=)) can’t deny i’m glad it’s a thing of the past . . . hang in there!

it does seem twisted that WIC — something designed to enable and boost Moms — is the very thing that spoils their days maybe? — hope that dear mom got over her crabbies before walking through the door to serve her family a wonderful healthy supper that night . . .

5 years ago

I wonder how much WIC varies from state to state? I feel spoiled after reading your post. Instead of a paper check that has to be redeemed all at once, I have a card (like a credit card) that I swipe at checkout. I can get as much or little of my monthly allotment at a store visit as I wish. Maybe you need to speak to the Pennsylvania powers that be and tell them to get up to date!! I don’t know if this is the same state to state, but in VA, all the WIC products are supposed to be marked (maybe not formula). So it’s a breeze going through the aisles and finding things. Check where the price is marked below the product being sold. If it is WIC approved, there should be wic written in a small blue rectangle in the bottom left-hand corner. Sometimes there is actually a big, WIC sign also near the price sign. Have you tried the TOPS brand for your rice, etc.? I’m thinking store brands are often accepted… Also, when you go for your next WIC appointment, see if they will allow you to go to the WIC website and do some “educational training” at home instead of filling out paperwork like you were talking about. I can watch a video and answer questions at home and then print out one page with my test score and showing that I did it and I can just take it along to my WIC appointment and bingo! (I have had to answer some questions along the lines you were talking about though in time past). The other thing that saves time at your WIC appointment is taking the latest doctor report that has their weight, etc.. Then hopefully you won’t have to do all that again (and save the drama if your kids hate doctor appointments already). A tip on using the nasty low-fat milk. I like to use it and the juice to make smoothies. The juice helps to sweeten it, and you can even slip in veggies for the littles and they’ll drink it up.
And yes, I guess going to the health department once in a while is good for the pride level… Keep on keeping on!

5 years ago

I agree that this should not be so hard to do and that I felt like an idiot the first time I did it. What I finally did was lay out all six checks and went page by page through the “Bible” and penciled in the exact size and amount we could get off each page. Instead of 2 bags of beans on that check and 3 on this one, I had the total amount on the top of the bean page. That helped a little.

Why is there no meat allowance?? And yes, as some others have said, why so much juice? I like that most of the stuff you have to get is healthy, but there are certain stores in my city that I avoid because chances are so high you’re gonna get behind a WICer and be there for a long time. Surely there are some changes that could be made.

5 years ago

I enjoyed this post so much! Sarcasm brings out the best in you! I’m looking forward to reading more.

5 years ago

Thank you so much for sharing! I am currently a college sophomore studying social work and I really enjoyed reading your perspective of WIC. Your insights were very helpful and balanced at looking at both the positive and negative aspects of the program! It is undoubtedly confusing and I would love to see it become simpler for people to use.

5 years ago

Your post made me smile. I have used WIC for my foster children and can totally identify. When it is my turn to check out, I like to line up my items in the order they are listed on the check. That makes it easier for the cashier. I have been thanked by cashiers for being organized. In time you will learn to spot the correct items quickly as you shop. . . Until WalMart rearranges their aisles 🙂

5 years ago

Yes! As a foster mom, I totally felt all the WIC craziness….until my state (Colorado) switched to the electronic system. What a difference! Now I have a “credit card” that I swipe…I mix the WIC stuff in with all my other purchases, and it automatically applies the WIC stuff to the card, and I can do that as many times in a month as I want. If I spend $2.57 on fruit and veggies one day, the balance is waiting for me the next time. It has made such a difference. Still not perfect, but I quit wondering if it’s worth it nearly as often. 🙂

Ruth Ann Nolt
5 years ago

As a foster mom, I can identify with WIC woes. ?

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