Millions of Americans use supplemental food benefits each month. Along with the stigma of holding up the supermarket checkout line comes a large helping of empathy with other people.
The girl behind the checkout counter at the Shop Rite supermarket sighed deeply and pushed her manager call button. A slightly older girl shuffled over wearily.
“WIC,” the checkout girl said, turning the three letters that stand for the government-funded supplemental nutrition program in the USA into a long whine: “Women, Infants and Children.”
The manager mumbled, moved her out of the way and proceeded to look over my special WIC checks.
“You can’t get that brand of tuna fish,” she admonished.
“I know,” I said. “But you are out of the store brand.”
Another long sigh and she was gone.
“Sorry everyone,” the checkout girl addressed the line forming behind me. “She’s got WIC.”
The word sounded like a curse, a log jam, a headache. While the manager was gone, the girl swiped my groceries. Store-brand peanut butter, a gallon of 2 percent milk, $10 worth of fresh vegetables and fruits, bags of rice and beans, a loaf of whole wheat bread, two boxes of cereal, and four pounds of tofu.
“You can’t get this with WIC,” she said sharply, like she had caught me trying to game the system.
“I can actually. I get tofu instead of some of my milk. See, it’s right there on the ticket.”
“I’ve never seen anyone get this before,” she responded.
“It’s right there: four pounds of tofu.”
She looked, not really believing it was going to be there, but it was and eventually she swiped it through. Shopping with government benefits is always an adventure. You can’t be anonymous and you definitely can’t use the self checkouts. Every purchase is scrutinized and questioned before being approved.
“I have my own bags,” I said brightly, trying to stuff everything into my cloth sacks and telegraph apology and contrition to the people behind me. Luckily, I have a gorgeous and effervescent son who flirts with everyone. A smile and a wave from Seamus dissolved the impatience and judgment from people in the line. The manager returned with six cans of StarKist tuna.
“We’re out of our brand. I’ll override and you can ring these up,” she told the checkout girl. I smiled my thanks and a few minutes later, I was out.
I should not have felt so bad, and I’m not alone. In fact I am one of 8.5 million Americans who use WIC benefits each month. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture which is responsible for the program, WIC serves 53 percent of infants born in the United States. So, my children, Madeline and Seamus, are part of the majority!
I have since learned that employees at another nearby grocery store are older, better trained and more respectful of customers using WIC, especially because many of them are mothers from the local submarine base. Now, I try to avoid the teenage checkout girls.
There is the twin sense of stigma and solidarity that comes along when shopping with state benefits. I feel a little naked and judged when I’m standing in line, and taking extra time. But along with that minor discomfort comes a large helping of empathy when I see a woman looking utterly lost in the cereal aisle.
I step out of my supermarket somnolence to point out the little WIC symbols below some of the price tags and tell her that she can mix and match among the WIC-approved cereals (no Fruit Loops or Count Choculas allowed), as long as the total weight is 38 ounces. Seems easy, right?
Not so. The number of times I have added up incorrectly and held up the checkout line as a result is embarrassing. Being a WIC shopper also helps me stay patient and friendly when someone ahead of me hits a snag with their benefits.
I still mess up sometimes, even though I have been using WIC since I found out I was pregnant with Seamus more than two years ago. I put the wrong kind of cereal or eggs on the conveyor belt or grab the wrong brand of peanut butter. In one recent trip to the grocery store, WIC checks purchased $30.32 worth of staples for our family and then I bought another $35.41 items not covered under the program, including potatoes, vanilla extract, spaghetti, ingredients for granola and some fish sticks - something I never expected to buy, but they are quick, full of protein and not very expensive.
WIC takes a lot of work. Every two months or so, I have an appointment with a nutritionist who asks questions about what Seamus and I are eating and how the checks are working out. When I was pregnant, they weighed me on each visit and kept track of my weight on a chart, causing me no small bit of anxiety when I went above the curve of what was supposed to be acceptable. Periodically, we have to submit forms from Seamus’ pediatrician and my doctor to the WIC, so that they can track his weight gain and our general health.
What's more, WIC can be downright confusing. Sweet potatoes are allowed but white potatoes are not. Garlic and fresh herbs do not count as vegetables. WIC shoppers have to pay very close attention to the weights of their selections - 16 ounces of peanut butter is not allowed. The jar has to be 18 ounces. You can get brown eggs, but not organic eggs. You can buy reduced price vegetables and fruit, but in most instances you’ll have to walk the checkout person through the process. You must buy everything on your check at once, even if you know you can’t use two gallons of milk before it goes bad.
The choice of products covered by WIC is not random or haphazard. The U.S. Department of Agriculture just released a 104 page report along with an announcement that for the first time in 34 years, the WIC package would be changed. Yogurt, canned mackerel and whole wheat pasta have been added to the list of acceptable foods, and the allotment of fresh, canned and frozen vegetables has been increased.
The powers that be have also loosened the rules for who can purchase soy based milks, and under what circumstances. We get the tofu, extra cheese and peanut butter because I am breastfeeding. Women who aren’t breastfeeding can get formula through WIC, which is a good thing because formula is expensive and it goes fast.
We just updated our WIC enrollment to add Baby Madeline, and now we are getting eight gallons of milk each month. That’s a lot of milk! I grew up on powdered milk and don’t really drink the real stuff. Nor does Seamus. Rosena, my seven-year-old stepdaughter, will sit down to a cup of milk, but she is the only one in the family and is only with us half of every week. So we pour milk on our cereal and make yogurt from whatever is left over. Then we make yogurt cheese from the yogurt, and cheesecake or veggie dip from the yogurt cheese. We also give away a lot of milk and yogurt to friends and family.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining. WIC helps us to stretch our limited budget for food, and it fills our pantry with staples. And being part of the program is a way of deepening my understanding of my community. I connect with people in the WIC waiting room and the grocery store checkout line in a way I would not otherwise.
WIC is credited with decreasing obesity and instilling healthy eating habits in young children. In many cases the program makes the difference between full bellies and empty ones. The program’s nutritionists and case workers are all trained lactation consultants and they are informative, upbeat and relentless in pushing breast feeding as best for mother and baby. And they get results. Education, encouragement, enthusiasm, resources and support get women breastfeeding. According to a new USDA report, “Among WIC state agencies that reported breastfeeding data for 2012, 67 percent of all 6- to 13-month-old infants were currently breastfed or were breastfed at some time, compared with 63 percent in 2010.”
There is still a long way to go though. Save the Children ranked the United States last in policies that support breastfeeding among 36 high-income nations - policies like paid maternity leave, nursing breaks at work and the percentage of hospitals that are “baby friendly.” The US pays for these failings. Low rates of breastfeeding add an estimated $13 billion to annual medical costs in the USA, and they led to 911 extra deaths in 2010, according to a study in Pediatrics.
There are lactivists who organize nurse-ins at airports, restaurants and corporate headquarters to make the point that breastfeeding in public should be considered normal. But having spent lots of time in WIC waiting rooms, supermarket checkout lines and neighborhood play groups with mothers who are not breast feeding, I know it's not just about modesty or not having the right kind of cover up.
It is definitely not that these women want to shortchange their children. The slogan “breast is best” is just alliteration if you are working a 10-hour shift at minimum wage with no place to use a breast pump or take a nursing break. All the education and support in the world can’t change these conditions - it takes societal transformation too.
Let’s lactivate on that.