HELENA — The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC, program began just over 50 years ago in response to concerns surrounding malnutrition in lower-income families, and since then the program and the technology used to implement have changed.
"The WIC program is very important in my 42 years within the retail, it's grown and developed into something that's very easy for the customer to access and to take advantage of," said Art Williams, store manager of Van's Thriftway in Helena. "It was more or less food stamps before it became the WIC for women and children and it was a little bit different. At times, there was paper, paper dollars and paper bills and it's evolved into EBTs and EFTs, where they can just get it right away at the registers."
The WIC program is for low-income pregnant and post-partum women, infants, and children up to five years old who are at nutritional risk. The program includes access to items like baby formula and fruits and vegetables, however, only specific items in specific quantities are eligible which can be confusing for families.
For instance, a recent change by Darigold to change their cardboard half-gallon cartons of milk to 59 ounces renders them ineligible to be purchased with WIC benefits.
But in recent years, WIC benefit recipients have access to an app that can make their lives easier at the grocery store.
"The app is really one of the main tools that we have to make the shopping process easier for WIC families. They can register their WIC card on the app, and then the app will display that family's unique available balance of WIC foods and then they can use their phone to scan barcodes and see if that particular item is allowed for them," said Kevin Moore from the Montana WIC Program.
According to Moore, approximately 9,200 families in Montana receive WIC benefits and two-thirds of those families are using the app. However, Moore hopes to get that number to 100% while potentially also including grocery store employees in the process.
"The app is free for download and it also offers a lot of other features. You have the ability to locate a WIC clinic or a WIC-authorized grocery store nearby with the app, you can access nutrition education materials,” said Moore. “It's also a really good tool for store staff, because sometimes they don't know why an item is not ringing up for WIC customers, and they can use the app to help find out why.”
WIC program eligibility is based on four requirements:
-Categorical (Based on pregnancy status and age of child)
-Residential (Must be a resident of the state where applying for benefits)
-Income (Must either meet income guidelines or be eligible to receive other benefits like SNAP, TANF, etc.)
-Nutrition Risk (Applicants must be seen by a health professional such as a physician, nurse, or nutritionist who must determine whether the individual is at nutrition risk.)
Further information on how to determine eligibility can be found on the USDA and Montana DPHHSwebsites.