Wire WIC to better serve food-insecure families

mother feeding baby

June 28, 2022—While many parts of life in the U.S. moved online during the COVID-19 pandemic, safety net programs such as WIC (Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) have been slower to transform. During the early weeks of lockdowns and food supply shortages, in-person requirements for appointments and for purchasing eligible food left participants struggling to access benefits.

Some services were made temporarily available online, but more needs to be done, according to a report released May 23, 2022, by researchers from the WIC Health and Technology Initiative. Given that even before the pandemic, only 57% of eligible people were participating in WIC—and the gap between those who need it and those who receive it has only gotten worse since 2019—the researchers argue that there is an urgent need to modernize the program.

The Initiative is a project of New America in collaboration with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health Department of Nutrition and the MIT Media Lab, and supported by the Rockefeller and Aetna Foundations. Since 2017, it has brought together experts from a range of disciplines including public health, design, and engineering, to explore ways that WIC could be “wired” to better serve families in need.

“Our responses to the unrelenting pandemic of obesity and diabetes must begin during pregnancy and infancy; enhancing the WIC experience for participants and maximizing its effectiveness should be a high national priority,” said Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a member of the Initiative’s leadership team.

At a virtual symposium held in conjunction with the report’s release, the Initiative presented recommendations. These include:

  • Use social media to conduct outreach and recruitment
  • Create a digital wallet to streamline cross-enrollment with other assistance programs
  • Use apps, telehealth, and other technologies to provide more services remotely
  • Allow online ordering and home delivery of eligible food
  • Dedicate funding for modernizing WIC technology infrastructure

“A culture of health in America requires that everyone has access to the resources they need to flourish in their communities,” said project director Susan Blumenthal, director of the Health Innovations Lab at New America and a former U.S. Assistant Surgeon General. “Cutting edge technologies integrated into WIC can help the program more effectively, equitably, and efficiently deliver benefits and services now and in the years ahead to help reduce food insecurity and obesity, ensuring a healthier future for millions of families in the United States.”

Amy Roeder