WIC Food and Nutrition Centers


  • Catholic Charities Chicago, Illinois

Focus Area

  • Health

“The concentration of poverty persists in many communities with blight, boarded up buildings, lack of local employment, and lack of access to robust grocery stores. All of this contributes to generational poverty that needs high-intervention touchpoints.”

Kathy Donahue, Senior Vice President for Program Development and Evaluation at Catholic Charities Chicago

The Issue

Food is fuel. Along with active lifestyles, adequate shelter, and access to basic health services, proper nutrition is vital for good health. Diets rich in fruits and vegetables and high in vitamins and minerals are essential for healthy, energetic bodies. And for new and soon-to-be mothers and their children, a healthy diet is more than an energy source—it’s foundational for their long-term health and well-being. 

Nutritious diets are especially important for children in their early stages of growth and development. Research shows that children who are breastfed in their infancy and who maintain healthy eating habits through their youth are less likely to develop asthma, diabetes, and ear and respiratory infections. 

They’re also significantly less likely to become obese. This is important—for children and adults alike, obesity continues to be a pressing national health crisis with severe social and economic consequences. In the U.S. today, over 18.5% of American children and adolescents are obese. That’s 13.7 million kids who are at greater risk of poor health, academic, and career outcomes because of improper nutrition. And kids from low-income families are disproportionately affected.   

For those in poverty, maintaining a healthy diet isn’t easy. Today, women, infants, and children from low-income families face significant obstacles to good nutrition. For one, healthy eating is pricey. Fresh produce and quality meat and dairy products are more expensive than processed foods that are high in sugar and fat. 

Grocery stores that carry a variety of fresh and healthy foods are not available in every neighborhood. In 2019, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that 19 million people—6.2% of Americans—lived in food deserts, or low-income census tracts that are over one mile (or ten miles in rural areas) from quality supermarkets. 

Moreover, inflexible working schedules and norms also make healthy nutrition difficult for new mothers and their babies. The World Health Organization recommends that infants be exclusively breastfed during the first six months of their life and that mothers continue to breastfeed their children for at least two years after their birth. But with long shifts and a lack of employer support, working moms are hard-pressed to find the time needed for consistent breastfeeding.

To improve the access of mothers and their children to nutritious foods and to encourage healthy pre- and post-natal practices, U.S. lawmakers established the Women, Infant, and Children (WIC) Program in 1972. This program offers federal grant funding that states can use to provide supplemental foods, education, healthcare referrals, and basic health services for pregnant, breastfeeding, and non-breastfeeding women and their children. 

In addition to providing coupons and subsidies for a selection of baby foods, fruits and vegetables, juices, eggs, milk, cheeses, and whole-grain options, WIC also enables mothers and their children to access health screenings, immunization and substance abuse referrals, and various educational resources. 

Nationally, WIC operates through 1,900 local agencies and 10,000 clinic sites across all 50 states. Nearly 40% of U.S. births are to mothers who participate in WIC—the program benefits over 9.5 million Americans each year. And research finds that women who participate in WIC give birth to healthier babies. Their children are also more likely to be immunized and breastfed in their early years, and in their youth they’re more likely to score higher on reading and cognitive development exams. 

Despite the many financial and health benefits of WIC, the participation of eligible families is still low. Though coupons can be redeemed at supermarkets, pharmacies, and other approved stores, the redemption criteria for WIC-approved items is highly specific and often difficult to navigate. And as children age, WIC participation declines significantly. Though women can access WIC until their child reaches five years of age, the participation of families with four-year-olds is lacking.

In order to encourage the healthy development of mothers and their children and fully realize the health, economic, and social benefits of proper nutrition, we need to know what works to keep mothers engaged in the WIC program for as long as they are eligible. Because good food nourishes more than minds and bodies—it also nourishes hearts and futures. 

The Intervention

To improve the access of eligible mothers to WIC products and benefits, Catholic Charities Chicago operates 16 WIC centers in the greater Chicagoland area. These centers only carry WIC-approved food items, and they only accept WIC coupons as payment. Many of the centers are also closely located to WIC clinics where eligible mothers and their children can receive health check-ups and participate in education programs. 

To shop at a WIC center, a family must have a pre-tax income of no more than 185% of the federal poverty level—in Cook County (Chicago), over 50,000 women and children participate in WIC each year. Still, only one-third of WIC-eligible families use Catholic Charities’ WIC centers. 

To encourage eligible mothers and children to shop at WIC centers, Catholic Charities Chicago explored the efficacy of a text-message reminder that prompts mothers to re-enroll in the WIC program and redeem the coupons they receive.

Research Question

Does reminding eligible women to access the WIC nutrition program increase their participation rates?

Intended Outcomes

  • Mothers who receive a text-message reminder to re-enroll in the WIC program will be more likely to participate and persist in the program and redeem the coupons they receive. 
  • These mothers will also be more likely to shop at Catholic Charities’ WIC centers, and they will participate in WIC for a longer period of time than mothers who do not receive a text message.
  • The children of mothers who participate in WIC for longer periods of time will have better health outcomes than the children of those who participate briefly or not at all.

Research Study Design

The WIC Food and Nutrition Centers study is a randomized controlled trial designed to determine the effects of a light-touch intervention on WIC enrollment and participation. 

Catholic Charities Chicago partnered with a third-party service to send text-message reminders to families enrolled in the WIC program in Cook County, Illinois. These text messages reminded recipients of the key dates and information they needed to successfully re-enroll in the WIC program. 

To test the impact of these text messages on WIC enrollment and coupon redemption, those enrolled in WIC were randomly assigned to two groups. The first group received a text-message reminder. They became members of the treatment group. Those assigned to the second group did not receive a text message. They became members of the control group. At the conclusion of the study, LEO researchers compared the WIC participation rates and child health outcomes of families who received a text-message reminder with those who did not.

(Photo credit: Catholic Charities Chicago)

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