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WIC Enhancements Critical to Keeping Young Children in Maryland Fed During the First Two Years of the Pandemic
BALTIMORE, October 5, 2022 — Fewer families with young children in Maryland are taking part in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), according to a report released today by the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC). The WIC During COVID-19: Participation and Benefit Redemption Since the Onset of the Pandemic report finds the program had 117,676 participants in February 2022, a decrease of one percent from February 2020.
The report examines changes in WIC participation and food costs for benefit redemption over the first two years of the pandemic among WIC agencies located in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Tribal organization WIC agencies, and provides recommendations for strengthening the program.
Nationally, the report finds the program had 6.2 million participants in February 2022, an increase of 1.2 percent from February 2020, the baseline month before COVID-19. Local economies benefited by $7 billion as a result of WIC food redemption over the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. The change in WIC participation varies widely between WIC agencies based on a variety of factors, including the degree of uptake and implementation of pandemic-related WIC flexibilities and WIC agency outreach and capacity.
WIC waivers initiated at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic have dramatically improved the program and its service in Maryland and across the country. Participants have been able to enroll and re-enroll in WIC without going to a WIC clinic.
WIC participants also have been able to receive their monthly food package benefits remotely and attend appointments off-site via video chat and phone.
Despite the drop in WIC participation, things in Maryland would be far worse if not for waivers and program flexibilities.
The monthly fruit and vegetable benefit boost for WIC participants also has played a key role in keeping hunger at bay for children and expectant or postpartum individuals. Through December 2022, participants can receive additional fruits and vegetables each month: about three times more for children and about four times for pregnant and postpartum individuals.
“The data reveal what our organization already knows; there are eligible individuals who are missing out on the benefits that WIC provides,” said Michael J. Wilson, director, Maryland Hunger Solutions. “More needs to be done to enhance participation to address the alarming spikes in hunger caused by the pandemic. A complete range of crucial improvements is required to modernize and strengthen WIC to ensure families eligible for the program get the nutrition they need for their health and well-being.”
Several factors contributed to the reduction in program participation. Overworked or understaffed WIC agencies may have had difficulty meeting the increased demand for WIC spurred by the pandemic. In addition, a nationwide drop in births during the pandemic compared to 2019 may have contributed to the reduced number of participants.
To offset lower participation rates in Maryland, Maryland Hunger Solutions urges WIC agencies to offer a full range of WIC services and benefit issuance options, including maximizing remote access to WIC through phone appointments and remote benefit issuance; maximizing partnerships and data sharing with health care providers, Medicaid, and other program operators to streamline processes at WIC clinics, limit unnecessary paperwork, and reduce participant burden; and coordinating with community partners to conduct community-centered and innovative WIC outreach.
Congressional action is needed to make permanent the improvements that have bolstered WIC services and improved access for families with young children during the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes continuing the enhanced value of WIC’s fruit and vegetable benefit at the levels recommended by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine.
The Healthy Meals, Healthy Kids Act offers a chance to broaden access to and strengthen WIC by maximizing remote access to WIC through phone appointments and remote benefit issuance; requiring WIC clinics to provide services over the phone and via video alternatives; and allowing for online and mobile payments in WIC.
Read the WIC During COVID-19: Participation and Benefit Redemption Since the Onset of the Pandemic report for more information.
The Food Research & Action Center improves the nutrition, health, and well-being of people struggling against poverty-related hunger in the United States through advocacy, partnerships, and by advancing bold and equitable policy solutions. To learn more, visit FRAC.org and follow us on Twitter and on Facebook.