WIC is a Federal program that provides food, nutritional counseling, and access to health services to low-income families throughout the United States. The emphasis is on expecting mothers, infants and children up to 5 years old, but homeless people and migrants are also eligible for some benefits. The full name of this program is the "Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children," a rather unwieldy name that is not even used in the official documentation. All participants in the program, from its recipients to its upper-level administrators, call it WIC.

First trials of the WIC program were begun in 1972 under the name "Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants, and Children." The program became permanent in 1974, and its name was changed to the modern version in 1994, under the Healthy Meals for Healthy Americans Act.

Eligibility for WIC aid is based mainly on family income. The applicants' gross income must be at or below 185 percent of the official US Poverty Income Guidelines. For a family of 3 in 2002, this equals an annual pre-tax income of $27,787.00. Some states may have lower limits. It is my experience, however, that the people who actually oversee WIC applications are extremely flexible about these guidelines and will enroll any applicant that they think needs help. Of course, this may not be true in other areas, but I think it's worth a try if you are in doubt. Note that the WIC program is run by the Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service, and administrators may or may not actually verify applicants' income with other government offices. I really can't imagine that they do. A statement of eligibility for unemployment benefits may be enough proof for an applicant to receive WIC aid.

Once eligibility has been determined, the applicants are interviewed by a nutritionist to assess the nutritional deficiencies and risks. The recipients then receive a booklet of checks redeemable for specific items only. The checks can be used to buy the prescribed foods at most supermarket chains within a certain range of dates. Each check is good for one month, and the dates are staggered to cover a four-month period. Appointments are scheduled every four months to re-assess the nutritional needs and/or provide new checks. Foods typically paid for by WIC include milk, juice, breakfast cereal, eggs, cheese, beans, peas and peanut butter. Breastfeeding mothers will also receive tuna and carrots.

In some states, WIC will also provide coupons for use at farmers' markets. This is to encourage the consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables. In general, the foods provided by WIC are those rich in protein, calcium, iron, vitamin A and vitamin C, these being the nutrients that studies have found lacking in the diets of low-income populations. WIC food is not meant to form a complete diet by itself, but to supplement.

Families in which more than one parent shares grocery shopping and/or caregiving responsibilities should take note: WIC checks are normally made out to one specific person, and are not transferable. If both parents want to be able to use the checks, they must both be present at the initial WIC interview and they must request that the "other parent" be designated as an Alternate Authorized Representative.

Officially, WIC encourages breastfeeding as the safest and most complete diet for infants, and is allied with other FNS initiatives such as "Fathers Supporting Breastfeeding", an informational program targeting African-American fathers (the website helpfully notes that the program is "also appropriate for other male groups"). Breastfeeding mothers receive additional foods, and may receive breast pumps and other equipment. They are also eligible for WIC assistance for longer than bottle-feeding mothers.

On the other hand, roughly a third of WIC's annual budget comes from various manufacturers of infant formula, in the form of manufacturer rebates for formula provided to mothers who "choose not to breastfeed". I can't say whether or not WIC participants really are encouraged to breastfeed, since health concerns prevented us from choosing this option, but this seems like a major ($1.5 billion per year) conflict of interests to me. A similar situation prevails in many hospitals, with the result that many newborns are started on a formula diet as a matter of course.

(gwenllian, however, assures me that the WIC staff are very supportive of breastfeeding. She points out that it is cheaper for them to provide tuna and carrots than formula, even with the rebates they receive from the formula makers.)

All in all, this is a very helpful program for its target audience, which, according to the FNS, is approximately 47% of all children born in the US. WIC will not make grocery bills disappear, but it does have a noticeable effect on the huge expense of feeding and raising a new baby. WIC offices will also refer applicants to free or low-cost health services and generally do whatever they can to help out.


  • USDA Food and Nutrition Service Public Information Staff - (703)305-2286
  • The WIC section of the FNS website - http://www.fns.usda.gov/wic/

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