Walmart and Hy-Vee will begin accepting WIC benefits online in select states as part of a pilot program with the USDA and the Omaha, Neb.-based Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition.
When the pilot launches in 2022, a total of 85 Walmart stores in Massachusetts and Washington State will let participants in the government's Women, Infants and Children (WIC) special supplemental nutrition program order and pay for eligible items online using their electronic benefits card, according to a Walmart news release. Separately, in Iowa, Hy-Vee will trial online redemption of WIC benefits at one store in Des Moines, with plans to expand the offering to additional locations in Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska after that, a news release from the Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition (GSCN) noted.
"We’re honored to participate in the USDA and Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition’s WIC online pilot program," Walmart said in a statement. "Walmart has always believed that access to convenience and to fresh, quality groceries should be available to everyone, regardless of payment method."
In the Midwest, WIC participants surveyed "expressed interest in online ordering and shopping to overcome transportation and time-constraint barriers and reduce stigma associated with using WIC benefits," the GSCN stated. "The pandemic also created a need for online shopping, but current WIC program regulations and systems could not meet that need."
That's in contrast with the larger federal Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program (SNAP), which in 2019 started allowing select retailers to accept benefits online. That effort expanded when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and throughout 2020 and 2021, national and regional grocery chains and independent retailers have sought to expand the online offering, with a strong reception seen from SNAP participants.
Last month, a WIC Task Force on Supplemental Foods Delivery, comprising retailers, manufacturers, tech companies, WIC participants and WIC program state and local representatives, submitted a report to the USDA with recommendations for modernizing WIC benefits redemption. FMI–the Food Industry Association participated in the task force and urged the USDA and Congress "to prioritize making improvements to the WIC program that modernize and streamline the transaction process to ensure WIC beneficiaries have additional options to secure healthy, affordable foods for their families," FMI Chief Public Policy Officer Jennifer Hatcher stated in a news release.
"The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the simple truth that WIC families are required to navigate additional barriers to access nutritious foods," said Rev. Douglas Greenaway, president and CEO of the National WIC Association, in a statement issued in conjunction with the task force's report. "It is time for USDA to take decisive action to update program rules and unleash new innovations that will provide equitable options for WIC shoppers."
He added: "Pregnant women, new parents, parents with multiple children, and caretakers should be able to use commercial platforms that are accessible to the general shopping public to access healthy WIC foods. With SNAP scaling up options nationwide, WIC families cannot and should not have to wait."
Walmart, in its statement, echoed the sentiment. "We look forward to collaborating with the Washington WIC and Massachusetts WIC agencies when the pilot goes live next year and are eager to expand this offering to even more states in the future, in the same way we’ve scaled our SNAP online purchase program," the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer stated.