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Temporary Boost in WIC Benefit Leaves Other Barriers to Healthy Food

Patti Singer

The USDA’s WIC program is temporarily expanding the benefit to buy fruits and vegetables.
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Rochester families receiving WIC benefits are about to get some extra money to buy fruits and vegetables.

But the temporary boost may not make it easier for parents to put greens on the table if they don’t have a convenient place to shop.

Within the city, only 10 vendors are authorized to participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), which is run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The vendors are clustered in seven ZIP codes, and in the case of two on Hudson Avenue, are within a few blocks of each other. Among the 10, the only full-service grocery stores are the Tops Friendly Markets on West Avenue and Upper Falls Boulevard and the Price Rite stores on Driving Park Avenue and University Avenue.

The list did not include farmers markets.

From June through September, eligible Rochester families will receive $35 per child and adult per month to buy produce as part of their WIC food package. Usually, the monthly cash-value voucher is $9 per child and $11 for pregnant, postpartum and breastfeeding women.

The money comes from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, federal funds in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The increased allotment is supposed to boost the purchasing power of WIC participants, allowing them to buy nutritious fruits and vegetables.

But money isn’t the only obstacle to healthy eating.

“What good is it if somebody is unable to get to the store?” said Mike Bulger, Healthy Communities Project Coordinator with Common Ground Health, the regional planner that is working on health equity.

Bulger said that people of all demographics who responded to a survey from Common Ground about their health experiences said nutrition was important. But poorer people said transportation was their major barrier.

“It was hard getting where the healthy food was,” he said. “WIC is an example of why that might be.”

Vendors have to apply to be part of the WIC program – and they need to be part of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps). There is a detailed application process and potential vendors have to meet minimum requirements for the type of food they sell.

“You have a lot of people getting incentives to buy fruits and vegetables, but they might not have easy transportation,” Bulger said. “It might be an hour each way to the place where they do their shopping.”

Even if they have transportation, getting there if they work multiple jobs or have to arrange child care are added burdens.

Even if there is a nearby WIC vendor, Bulger said there isn’t a regulation that the store have appealing or culturally relevant fruits and vegetables. WIC covers some versions of canned and frozen fruits and vegetables as well as fresh varieties.

Potential solutions wouldn’t necessarily address the scarcity of WIC vendors specifically but could increase overall access and availability of healthy food.

The city, Common Ground Health and Foodlink are developing a food policy council that will be led by residents who will determine the best ways to get healthier food into neighborhoods.

Bulger said local organizations don’t have the power to change the WIC program or the systems that run the agricultural and food businesses. “But we can build up community gardens, we can build up local businesses, we can build up local supply chains and we can enable and support residents to make it easier and more convenient to get good quality food.”

Bulger served on the planning team for the food policy council. He said other cities have such councils. In some instances, transportation to grocery stores is arranged. He said the council will determine what best suits the needs of Rochester families.

City Council is scheduled to vote May 11 on endorsing the food policy council. The ordinance calls for the mayor and City Council to review and consider policy recommendations from the citizen-led group.

Foodlink also is working on a way to make it easier for WIC recipients to get healthy food. A Foodlink spokesman said it would have an announcement in June.

“In the grand scheme of things, we believe we can change our food system to make more sense,” Bulger said. “It doesn’t make sense that it’s more expensive for somebody who is low income and doesn’t have transportation to have to spend more money to eat healthy and get quality food.”