The WIC program – the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children – is a federal program managed by the Food and Nutrition Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, working in conjunction with 90 state agencies. Each month, it helps 8.2 million low-income women, infants and children up to age 5 who are deemed to require nutritional assistance. The WIC program has had a huge impact on the health of U.S. women and young children.

What Is the WIC Definition?

WIC stands for Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children. After the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly the Food Stamp Program) and the National School Lunch Program, the WIC program is the third-largest food and nutrition assistance program in the U.S.

Who Created WIC?

The WIC program came about as a result of concerning dietary and health trends among low-income Americans revealed by the National Nutrition Survey of 1967. Senators Robert Dole, George McGovern and Hubert Humphrey drafted a bill in 1972 partly in response to the survey results. That year, WIC was set up as a pilot program, but only children up to age 4 were included, and nonbreastfeeding postpartum women were not eligible. By the end of 1974, the program was running in 45 states. In 1975, the program was made permanent, and eligibility requirements were amended to include children up to age 5 and nonbreastfeeding women up to six months postpartum.

Facts About WIC

Initially, the WIC program was known as the Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants and Children. However, its name was changed under the Healthy Meals for Healthy Americans Act of 1994 to highlight the nutritional focus of the program. The WIC program is 100 percent federally funded. In other words, it does not rely on state-matching funds.

WIC History

In the early years, WIC was a test project providing two nutrition services: one for infants and another for children and breastfeeding women. Those who were eligible were given foods rich in important nutrients, including protein, iron, calcium and vitamins A and C. The first WIC clinic opened in Pineville, Kentucky in 1974. Expansion was rapid, with 44 more clinics opening by 1975. The program was declared a national initiative by Congress, with monthly participation estimated at 88,000.

In the 1980s, six different WIC programs benefited pregnant women, nonbreastfeeding women up to six months postpartum, breastfeeding women up to one year postpartum, infants up to age 1 and children up to age 5.

By 1990, 1.9 million Americans benefited from the WIC program. According to an FNS study, mothers who took part in the program had lower Medicaid costs, and their newborns weighed more than those who didn't receive WIC assistance.

In 2000, an executive memorandum from the White House authorized the WIC program to start screening participants for childhood immunization status. This was designed to take advantage of the program's access to a huge number of low-income children.

In 2004, the Breastfeeding Peer Counselor Initiative was launched. Women with breastfeeding experience trained as counselors for women starting to breastfeed their babies.

In 2007, WIC overhauled its food packages, which had remained largely unchanged since the 1970s despite changing nutritional risks and advances in nutritional science. The changes, which came into effect in 2009, were consistent with the dietary guidelines for Americans and gave mothers who exclusively breastfed more healthy foods.

In 2015, the WIC program supplied food vouchers, offered dietary education and nutritional counseling and made health care referrals from around 10,000 clinics across the U.S., including hospitals, camps, mobile vans, county health departments, community centers, migrant health centers and schools.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, WIC helps over half of all infants in the United States, over a quarter of all pregnant and postpartum women and over a quarter of all children less than 5 years of age.

WIC Eligibility

Qualification for the WIC program is subject to a number of eligibility requirements. First of all, the applicant must be a pregnant woman, a nonbreastfeeding woman up to six months postpartum, a breastfeeding woman up to one year postpartum, an infant up to his first birthday or a child up to his fifth birthday. Additionally, the applicant must reside within the state where she can prove eligibility.

Eligibility is also determined based on family income – either the income of the family during the past 12 months or the family's current income, depending on which most accurately portrays the financial status of the family. WIC program guidelines state that the family income must be no more than 185 percent of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services federal poverty guidelines, which are used by the government to decide who is eligible for federal aid and subsidies. The guidelines are revised and published each year and provide guidelines for each household size. For example, in 2018, the poverty level for a household of four is an annual income of $24,600, with higher limits for Alaska and Hawaii due to the higher cost of living in those states.

In most cases, applicants must provide evidence of family income and attend each certification or recertification. However, applicants who are currently eligible to participate in the SNAP, Medicaid or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families programs are automatically eligible for the WIC program and are not required to provide evidence of family income during the application process.

Applicants who take part in other state-run programs that rely on income guidelines at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty guidelines and require evidence of income may also be deemed to be automatically eligible.

When someone is certified as eligible for the WIC program, she does not have to report any income changes that would affect her eligibility. However, local agency WIC staff do recommend reporting any change with the potential to affect program eligibility.

Every applicant must also be deemed to be at nutritional risk by a qualified health professional such as a physician, nutritionist or nurse. For eligibility purposes, two main types of nutritional risk are recognized: medically based risks, such as maternal age, anemia or a history of pregnancy complications, and diet-based risks, such as an incompetent diet.

Priority System

If the WIC program does not have enough funds to provide for all eligible applicants, a priority system is used to make sure those who are at the greatest nutritional risk benefit. Whenever a local agency hits its maximum participation level, it creates a waiting list of people who show interest in applying to the program. Priority goes to those who can show a medically based nutritional risk, such as anemia, over a dietary nutritional risk. Infants and pregnant and breastfeeding women get priority over children, and children get priority over postpartum women. However, since the late 1990s, there has been enough funding to ensure that every eligible applicant gets help, including those at the lowest priority levels.

WIC Benefits

The main benefit of the WIC program is food packages. While the food package is intended to supplement a woman or child's diet and is not intended to be a primary source of food, it is nutrient-rich and specifically designed to benefit pregnant, breastfeeding and postpartum women as well as infants and children. The purpose of the food package is to help recipients avoid negative health issues resulting from a nutrient-deficient diet.

Following the 2007 revisions to the program, seven different packages were offered, containing combinations of foods created to meet the particular needs of each recipient category. Before the changes, the program provided only quantity-based food vouchers that were redeemable for specified quantities of food, such as four gallons of milk. After the revisions, a fixed cash-value voucher could be used to buy a range of fruits and vegetables according to the recipient's preference up to the dollar amount. In some states, warehouses are used as food distribution centers, or food may be dropped off at participants' homes.

Some states provide participants with electronic benefit cards instead of paper checks or vouchers. By October 2020, all state agencies are required to provide electronic benefit cards.

The revisions also added whole-wheat bread to most of the food packages, removed juice from the infant food packages, limited the fat content of milk, reduced the amount of milk that can be replaced by cheese and increased the range of alternative foods, such as soy-based beverages, brown rice, soft corn tortillas, tofu and whole-grain options.

The household income of a program participant does not affect the amount of food she receives, so the authorized maximum monthly allowance for all WIC foods is available to all participants. However, if the participant refuses or is unable to use the maximum monthly allowance, the WIC agency in her state may tailor her food package accordingly.

Other WIC benefits are breastfeeding support, infant formula, nutrition education and access to health care and other social services.

Participants who want to breastfeed are guided and supported by certified lactation educators to help them learn about the benefits of breastfeeding and to correct breastfeeding techniques.

For participants who do not fully breastfeed, the program provides iron-fortified infant formula, and special infant formulas and foods may be supplied for a particular health condition if a doctor's prescription is presented. WIC state agencies are legally required to have bid competitively for infant formula rebate contracts with infant formula manufacturers, which means the agencies agree to provide one brand of formula in exchange for a rebate from the manufacturer whenever infant formula is bought through the WIC program. These rebates ensure more people benefit from the program.

WIC participants are encouraged to take advantage of free health and nutrition education classes to help increase their awareness of any specific nutrition needs they may have and to learn about health prevention methods.

WIC program participants also benefit from assistance and guidance in accessing other crucial services, like child clinics, prenatal classes and drug and alcohol treatment programs.

WIC Participation Across States

The distribution of WIC participants across states is extremely irregular. In 2013, only two states – California and Texas – accounted for more than a quarter of all WIC participants. Eight states – California, Texas, New York, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio and Illinois – accounted for more than half of all WIC participants. At the other end of the scale, four states – Wyoming, North Dakota, Vermont and New Hampshire – together with the District of Columbia made up less than 1 percent of all WIC participants.

What Is the WIC Mission Statement?

While there is no official WIC mission statement, the United States Department of Agriculture states on its website that the program's mission is "to safeguard the health of low-income women, infants, and children up to age 5 who are at nutrition risk by providing nutritious foods to supplement diets, information on healthy eating, and referrals to health care."

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About the Author

Claire Gillespie has been writing and editing for 18 years. She has written about high school and higher education for private clients and various websites, including SheKnows and Reader's Digest.