BOULDER – Millions of low-income and breastfeeding pregnant women and their children face a difficult new challenge in the grocery store when frantic coronavirus buyers continue to take some of the most nutritious and inexpensive food available.
More than 1.6 million women and 5.2 million babies and children receive benefits under federal Women with Babies and Children, or WIC, program. But unlike more traditional food stamp programs, WIC money can only be spent on a narrow food list that is intended to provide the most nutrition at the lowest cost to taxpayers. If someone else buys the food, the WIC recipient cannot use the benefits to buy something else.
“The people we serve have stretched,” said Commissioner David Hudson, national commander Salvation Army, which serves WIC recipients and other poor families. “When other people take more than they need, the system expands.”
The challenge faced by WIC buyers is the latest struggle for millions of Americans who have received federal food assistance or who applied for it after losing their jobs. Panic shopping also hurts seniors because of a steady income, experts say. Hudson said the Salvation Army, which serves 7,500 communities nationwide, has seen requests double or even triple in some areas since mass layoffs related to the coronavirus outbreak began in mid-March.
Experts say buyers should avoid buying food that meets WIC requirements if possible, because they have been carefully chosen to provide the most nutrition at the lowest cost.
“If you only see one thing left on the shelf, leave it,” said Melinda Morris, WIC County Boulder program director. “Please leave it for others.”
While specific products vary by country, WIC recipients may be limited to buying white eggs, or certain types of canned beans and tuna, dry rice and whole-grain bread. In Colorado, for example, WIC recipients are specifically limited to plain yogurt or vanilla, and are prohibited from using its benefits to buy almond butter, most organic products, and even baked beans.
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Federal and state statistics show that more people are now applying for WIC benefits and food stamps, even though exact statistics are not yet available. Experts say they expect applications to skyrocket because millions of Americans living paycheck to paycheck lose their jobs and seek government assistance.
Food banks have improved their services and schools are serving food that can be brought home to low-income families, but experts say programs such as SNAP – what we call food stamps – and WIC mean that federal programs will take interest only in the coming months. About 40 million Americans receive food stamp allowances every month.
“We have seen a rapid increase in needs, which is reflected in our initial SNAP application number, as well as the doubling reported in household assistance at Food Banks and kitchens throughout the state,” said Madlynn Ruble, a spokesman for the Colorado Department of Human Services.
Awareness of this problem has spread through social media, because some Americans share posts urging their friends not to shop in the first few days of the month, when benefits are stored electronically in the recipient’s account.
Morris and Hudson said there was no need to avoid shopping during those days, and instead suggested shoppers only buy food one week at a time, rather than stockpiling. With the truck driver still gives a lot of food to the grocery store, no need to hoard, they said.
“People are starting to buy everything they can imagine and the people we serve don’t have the assets needed to get the supplies they need,” Hudson said.
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