The WIC Experience

12 Apr 2013

So I mentioned that since I now have very little income, we’re eligible for WIC. It’s a program designed to provide supplemental nutrition for pregnant and nursing mothers and young children. We are still waiting on the SNAP benefits we are supposed to be eligible for (a.k.a. “food stamps,” although they do not involve stamps anymore), but today we got our paperwork and first monthly WIC debit card, so tonight we went to our local Meijer grocery store to buy some groceries.

WIC only covers certain very specific things. It is designed to supplement the regular food benefits with high-protein and other high-nutrition foods. I think they are specifically trying to supplement iron, folic acid, calcium, and nutrients like that which are incredibly useful in pregnancy and early child development. They don’t cover any meat at all, except that a nursing mother can get items like canned tuna. The stuff they cover is designed to assist Grace, who is pregnant, and our two children under the age of five, not me and not our older children. What they cover and don’t cover is interesting. They are clearly trying to focus on basic nutrition. But their allotments of certain types of foods are very far from what we normally eat, what we prefer to eat, what our systems tolerate well, and what we consider current research to say about nutrition. For example, they still seem to be focusing on the “food pyramid,” which pushes staggering quantities of carbohydrate from whole grains — as much as a competitive cyclist would eat.

Given that our children are not competitive cyclists, we don’t really want to feed them that much grain. And what they consider OK is much different than what we do. For example, they think sugar-frosted whole wheat cereals are just fine. I guess the idea is “whatever it takes” to get the kids to eat the iron-fortified wheat products. They would have covered a lot of peanut butter (conventional only, major brands only, not fresh or locally produced or all-natural or organic). Vernonica is allergic to peanut butter. You can substitute beans, so we attempted to buy our favorite canned black beans, but apparently only the specifically-mentioned brands are covered, even though that isn’t very clear. So we had to put our 16 cans of black beans back.

They really push the conventionally-produced (not organic) cereals. Sam isn’t supposed to have gluten, so that rules out the wheat products. And non-organic means GMOs. We’ve tried to structure our diet, for years now, around avoiding gluten and as many GMOs as we can. But, well, it’s free, so maybe we can bend our usual rules a little bit. These things are covered, and we bought them, although we normally wouldn’t (I sometimes get unsweetened shredded wheat, which isn’t covered, and we usually get steel-cut oats, which aren’t covered):

We also got some grits — the only kind they covered were Quaker instant, in single-serving packs. They cover brown rice, although conventionally-grown only. We usually get the Meijer store brand organic brown rice, but we’re willing to substitute this non-organic brown rice, and it was covered:

WIC covers a limited selection of corn tortillas — basically, the ones with preservatives that are shelf-stable, not the fresh locally-made ones we usually get that are sold in the refrigerated section. WIC would have covered these, but after reading the ingredients, we just couldn’t bring ourselves to buy them:

WIC will also pay for an enormous quantity of cow’s milk. I have a mild reaction to cow’s milk — it makes me horribly, horribly congested, which inevitably leads to a cold or sinus infection. I had awful allergic rhinitis in childhood, along with chronic bronchitis, ear infections, and eventually had my tonsils removed because of chronic sore throats. When I went off cow’s milk all that vanished. If I have a “dairy binge,” — say, I give in to a craving and drink a large chocolate malted, the reaction is immediate.

So I go pretty light on the dairy products. I can eat a certain amount of things like cheese and yogurt and some liquid milk products without reacting, but if I push it too far, I get sick. I’m not really the point of this program, though — this supplemental food isn’t really to feed me — but more to the point, at least one of my sons has a similar reaction to dairy — and he’ll actually break out in hives. Independent of any kind of allergic reaction, people of African descent often just can’t digest cow’s milk very well. Wikipedia says “The frequency of decreased lactase activity ranges from 5% in northern Europe through 71% for Sicily to more than 90% in some African and Asian countries” (see An awful lot of kids and mothers on WIC, including my own, are of African descent, of course. My wife’s sister can’t digest milk. She can, to some extent.

So we use liquid milk in small amounts, buying mainly organic half-and-half for the healthy fats it contains, putting it in coffee and tea and on oatmeal, and organic sour cream, which we use on baked potatoes. We’ve also found that over the years conventionally produced dairy milk has gotten less and less safe to drink. We’ve used only organic liquid milk products for the last decade or so. There was one point at which we broke this rule. Someone had bought too much whole milk for some kind of church event, and they gave us the leftovers to take home. It was fresh, not expired, but 12 hours later we all spent the evening vomiting. So. Anyway. I was just a little freaked out to discover that the state is advocating consumption of simply ginormous quantities of conventionally-produced dairy milk. But they will not cover organic milk at all.

For reasons I can’t understand, they also specifically will not cover the locally made brand of conventionally-produced milk, Guernsey, which is the one we’d buy if we had to buy a non-organic milk. Why? I don’t know. We did wind up get a gallon of conventional whole milk. I look at it as something you probably don’t want to have in your home, like a tarantula, or an unexploded mortar shell. I think I’m going to try to make basundi (an Indian pudding or fudge, made from cooking down milk until it gets really delicious). I’ve made that before with organic whole milk and it was great. I think cooking it down may render it less allergenic, and should kill anything in it. I hope. We’ll see. Basundi is delicious. The only downside is that it takes a long, long time to cook.

So, we didn’t want to buy a lot of dairy milk — but they cover other milk, right? We go through a lot of almond milk, and sometimes coconut milk. Those items aren’t covered at all. They do cover soy milk, but Sam isn’t supposed to have soy, and we don’t use it a lot because of phytoestrogens anyway. And they only cover a couple of specific types, not Silk. Also, although we don’t use it much, apparently they don’t cover tofu. They do, supposedly, cover goat’s milk. I don’t really like it, but Grace does, and the kids would probably drink it. Meijer offers exactly one type of goat’s milk. It wasn’t an allowable WIC item in their system, when we tried to check out. They did cover a small amount of buttermilk, so we got some of that.

They will cover eggs — but only conventional, medium or large white eggs. Not cage-free, not organic, and specifically not “Eggland’s Best Organic.” We usually get our eggs from a neighbor with chickens, anyway, supplementing with Eggland’s Best only when her hens aren’t laying enough. The difference is huge — once you’ve had fresh pastured eggs, you really will never go back, if you can help it, to old, flavorless commercial eggs. So, we’ll skip the eggs, unless we get really, really desperate.

Anyway, the guidelines they give you are very specific — but still not specific enough. Have you ever been stuck behind someone at a grocery store who was paying for groceries with WIC and had to put back half their food and debate with the clerk over what was covered and what wasn’t? Yeah, that was us, tonight, despite spending a couple of hours carefully studying the WIC brochures and making a plan for what we were going to buy. We had to put back about half the things we intended to buy through our WIC card.

Here’s what it says about fruits and vegetables. Note that organics are OK:

So this was just fine:

And so was this:

I find it interesting that sweet potatoes are covered, but white potatoes aren’t. Grace and I like sweet potatoes, but for some reason the kids prefer white potatoes, so we don’t eat them very often. Well, the kids are going to have to get used to them. We’re not going to spend our rapidly dwindling savings to buy white potatoes if we can get sweet potatoes for free. Besides, they have more beta-carotene.

The produce stuff was pretty easy. But it got a lot harder. Here’s the refrigerated juice section:

We stared at this section for quite some time, and as far as we could determine, although WIC is supposed to provide various types of juice, only one of these actually qualifies. It was the generic store-brand juice at the bottom left. We chose the version with added calcium, which is supposedly allowed.

Fine, we thought — although we don’t drink fruit juice, at least not un-diluted, typically, because they are very sweet, and the kids just will drink glass after glass until it is gone, and the combination of acids and fructose tends to rot the kids’ teeth. But we’ll try it. Except that when we went to check out, it wasn’t covered.

The brochure says they cover a large number of different kinds of non-refrigerated juices. Here’s the section:

WIC would have covered a lot of syrupy-sweet grape juices or juice blends that are primarily white grape juice, but we really don’t want to give that stuff to our kids, because again, they will just pound the whole bottle. So we chose a low-salt V8 that we thought would qualify, 100% vegetable juice in the appropriately sized bottle, and a fruit/vegetable blend. We were pretty confident that both of these would be good for the kids, and that they wouldn’t drink them all in one day. Both were rejected by the system.

Here’s the stuff we thought we were going to be able to buy:

And here’s the stuff that the computer system didn’t allow:

It’s not actually clear to us why some of these items were rejected. In some cases, the wording of the WIC brochure was vague, so we may have thought an item was covered when it wasn’t. It could be because some items weren’t listed in the store’s database as allowable by WIC at all. It could be that the specific categories and amounts of food types we thought we were approved for weren’t correctly set up in our account. The cashier just sees a single error code that says something like “not approved/not a WIC item,” which could mean any of those things. I think the manager we spoke to was trying to explain to us that the whole system wasn’t actually set up by the store at all, and Meijer had nothing to do with tagging items as allowable or not allowable by under WIC. Maybe all WIC transactions go out to an entirely separately-administered system for approval. I’m not entirely clear on how it works.

The kale wasn’t actually rejected, we had just exceeded our dollar amount for covered produce (I think it was $22 worth of produce we were allowed). The brochure says you can exceed that and pay for the excess produce yourself, but in practice it seems that you can only exceed that and pay the overage on a single item. If you want to pay for more produce items yourself as part of the same order you can’t; you have to run them through as a separate order.

And so we had to try to charge $2.20 on our regular debit card, which for some reason would not go through. At one point we had four different cashiers and a manager trying to figure out why the items we thought WIC would cover, weren’t covered, and then why we were unable to complete a $2.20 charge on our debit card. So, yeah, we were those folks tonight. The ones you don’t want to get stuck behind in the grocery store. The ones who were driving an SUV and taking pictures of their food with an iPod, but buying their groceries with food assistance. (And we bought a second small cart-load of groceries, with cash, to get some items the WIC card wouldn’t cover, like half-and-half, butter, soy sauce, salad dressing, hamburgers, almonds, more produce, and a few other things; I think when we get our regular food benefits, most of that will be covered, and so we can, with luck, stretch our savings to keep us afloat until I have a new job).

We are genuinely curious about the food items that were refused. We talked to someone in customer service for a while, and a manager, and we’re supposed to get a call back from someone at Meijer tomorrow. We’ll also try to follow up with WIC. I think we might try again at Kroger. At Kroger, items that are covered by WIC are marked, right on the shelf, so you don’t have to stare at the pamphlet and try to puzzle out exactly what is covered and what isn’t.

I think Grace and I are going to record a podcast about this topic. The selection of what is and isn’t covered is interesting, and maybe revelatory. We have a lot more to say on the whole process.

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