Lessons Learned: WIC Food and Nutrition Centers

Author: Staff

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Key Takeaways

  • The results of the WIC Food and Nutrition Centers study find that participants redeemed only 80% of WIC coupons issued in Cook County from 2010 to 2012. This rate varied by the type of food item specified and whether the coupon was intended for infants, children under five, or their mothers.
  • The research suggests that mothers, infants, and children at the highest health and nutritional risk redeemed coupons at lower rates. Low-income mothers, black mothers, and mothers under the age of 25 were less likely to take full advantage of WIC benefits. 
  • Women with limited access to food retailers were less likely to redeem their WIC coupons. Mothers who lived next door to a major food retailer redeemed 86% of their coupons, while those living 1.5 miles away redeemed only 76%.

Mechanics

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) is designed to increase the food and healthcare access of low-income women who are pregnant, breastfeeding, or have infants and children under the age of five. Eligible mothers can redeem WIC coupons for qualifying food items at local stores, supermarkets, and WIC Food and Nutrition Centers (FNCs), which sell only WIC-approved items. 

In Cook County alone, over 50,000 women and children receive WIC benefits each year. To better serve WIC participants, Catholic Charities of Chicago operates 16 FNCs where mothers can redeem their WIC coupons and also receive basic healthcare services. 

To better understand WIC program participation, LEO researchers analyzed administrative data from the Illinois Department of Human Services (IDHS) from 2010 to 2012. Over the course of the study, IDHS issued 15.4 million coupons to 324,000 women and children. Across Cook County 1,923 retailers accepted WIC coupons. 

By performing a simple analysis of WIC coupon redemption rates and by exploring the demographic characteristics of participants, LEO researchers measured how frequently mothers redeemed WIC subsidies. Through this analysis, they gained insights into how geographic distance from retailers, family income, and family demographics impact WIC participation and efficacy.  

What We Learned

Through the WIC Food and Nutrition Centers study, LEO researchers gained a deeper understanding of clients’ participation in the WIC program and its limitations. 

Overall, they found that the redemption rate of issued WIC coupons in Cook County hovered around 80%. With mothers redeeming only four out of five coupons, significant benefits were left unused. 

Still, because WIC coupons are categorized separately for infants, children under five, and the mothers, the study suggests that coupon redemption rates depend on the type of coupon used. For example, 85% of issued coupons that were designated for infants were redeemed, compared to 82% of coupons designated for children and 79% designated for mothers. 

Researchers found that coupon redemption rates also depended on the type of food item eligible for purchase. While mothers almost always redeemed coupons for baby formula, they were less likely to do so for solid baby food. Redemption rates for non-infant food items were high, as were coupons designated specifically for juice, fruits and vegetables, bread, and beans. Coupons that include these items had redemption rates of 78-86%, while those that didn’t had redemptions rates of 67-71%. 

The results of the WIC study also provide valuable insights into the challenges faced by low-income mothers, especially those from specific demographics groups. The research suggests that mothers, infants, and children at the highest health and nutritional risk redeemed coupons at lower rates. Mothers who had family incomes less than $10,000 per year, mothers who were black, and mothers 25 years and younger were less likely to redeem their WIC coupons. 

Similarly, geographic location played a major role in WIC coupon redemption rates. Women with limited access to food retailers—meaning those living over two miles from a supermarket—were less likely to redeem their WIC coupons. Mothers who lived next to a major store redeemed 86% of their coupons, while those living 1.5 miles away redeemed only 76% of their coupons. These redemption rates diminished significantly as mothers’ distance from major food retailers increased. Mothers living two to three miles from major retailers received a WIC benefit that was 6% smaller than mothers who lived next door. This suggests that a lack of large food retailers may prevent low-income families from accessing nutritious food, even when it’s free. 

Where We’re Going

There’s a large body of literature that suggests the WIC program has a positive impact on infant health. Still, the WIC Food and Nutrition Centers study suggests the program has room for considerable improvement. 

Because mothers do not redeem all of the benefits they receive through WIC, further research is warranted to encourage participation in the program. Specifically, increasing the access of participants to major food retailers and simplifying the rules of coupon redemption may help mothers take full advantage of their WIC benefits. 

By deepening their understanding of the WIC program and the challenges participants face, agencies like Catholic Charities Chicago can reassess their modes of outreach to better serve the WIC community.

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