In the initial weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, USDA was positioned to rapidly scale up an online ordering project for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – leaving WIC shoppers as one of the few consumer groups without access to online shopping options. WIC must swiftly modernize to provide a modern, accessible, and equitable shopping experience for more than 6.2 million WIC participants and their families.
Outdated program regulations – drafted in an era of paper vouchers – require WIC transactions to be conducted in-person, in the presence of a cashier or grocery store employee. The introduction of e-WIC over the past decade unlocks the potential for new methods of conducting transactions – including through online platforms – while maintaining program integrity. USDA has indicated that it will revise vendor regulations in spring 2022 to account for the shift to e-WIC and prepare a regulatory framework for online shopping models and further innovations.
In April 2020, NWA convened a working group of key stakeholders to map out the necessary steps to develop online shopping technologies. This work has informed state-driven innovations and subsequent USDA projects – including a USDA Task Force to review regulatory revisions and a USDA Online Ordering Grant, administered by the Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition, to develop and test shopping platforms. In 2022, three subgrant projects will scale up online ordering platforms with retailers of varying sizes, including: Washington State and Massachusetts WIC, partnering with Walmart; Minnesota, Iowa, and Nebraska WIC, partnering with Hy-Vee; and South Dakota and Rosebud Sioux WIC, partnering with Buche Foods.
As WIC works to swiftly scale up online shopping models, the National WIC Association urges consideration of the following principles:
- WIC shopping should be integrated into commercial platforms. Efforts to establish online shopping for WIC shoppers build on existing progress by retail grocers to offer modern options for SNAP recipients and the general shopping public. Especially as many WIC transactions are multi-tender, retailers should create interoperable virtual platforms that accommodate transactions across the federal nutrition programs. Where possible, retailer platforms should include modifications that enhance the WIC shopping experience, such as display of an e-WIC benefits balance or virtual shelf tags/filters that identify WIC-approved foods.
- Online shopping should account for WIC’s core nutrition mission and program requirements. WIC and SNAP transactions are programmed differently, reflecting the different purposes of the two programs. WIC’s monthly benefit is a prescription for healthy foods, and online shopping models must protect the nutritional integrity of the food package. Program rules must accommodate the practical realities of implementing online WIC orders in the present retail environment, including adequate safeguards to assure nutritionally comparable substitutions. WIC must also continue its work to improve healthy food environments – both for participating families and the broader community – by incentivizing healthier retailer practices on virtual platforms.
- Online platforms should ensure equitable access for the diversity of WIC participants. New online shopping options should be built to last – ensuring ease of access to sustain utilization among program participants. Retailer platforms must resolve coverage gaps to assure equitable and ongoing access for WIC participants, particularly in rural and remote communities. Federal investment should support establishment of new platforms, with an eye on reducing costs and assuring that platforms are not cost-prohibitive for participating families.
- Program rules should be drafted to be inclusive of future technologies. The escalation of online SNAP options during the pandemic exacerbated the inequitable shopping experience for WIC families. WIC innovation must remain current with, or even ahead of, other commercial processes. New regulations and systems changes must account for the possibility of future innovation, including new transaction technologies like mobile payments.