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WIC usage dropped nationwide during and after COVID-19 pandemic

The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences has found a significant drop in WIC usage occurred during and after the COVID-19 pandemic across the US. Data shows that those who qualified for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children dropped in participation from 66% to just under 58% .Dr. Clare Brown is a professor of public health at UAMS and she said if a person qualifies for Medicaid, they also qualify for WIC. And protections were put in place to keep people enrolled on Medicaid throughout the pandemic, which led them to believe WIC utilization could have been increased.

“People are already meeting those requirements for income,” said Brown. “But because of the way we designed the study and because of the way we included people who are already on WIC, we’re already taking out that potential piece of the puzzle. So what we looked at is if WIC changed among those who have Medicaid coverage.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, concessions were made to keep people enrolled in Medicaid and WIC who had already enrolled beforehand. That means even though more people were on Medicaid and WIC, participation in WIC still dropped.

Brown said there are two buckets of barriers when it comes to making sure that those who qualify for WIC are able to use it. The first is being able to sign up for WIC. That includes providing longer hours at WIC office so those who are eligible can visit the office more easily as well as more resources available in Spanish and Marshallese.

“The second bucket of barriers is actually using the services,” said Brown. “There are limited number of stores that take WIC. There are specific types of products that are WIC eligible — and even within a given product there are certain brands that are [only] eligible with WIC. The more we can increase the flexibility at the product level or at the grocery store, the better that people can use the services once they are enrolled.”

Brown also said that there are a whole host of things that may result in stigma and discrimination for people eligible for WIC.

“There are many populations who are fearful or hesitant to use any form of government program because they have to provide information to participate,” said Brown. “They may be fearful of any form of discrimination or deportation or anything related to that. You have to provide certain kinds of documentation to participate in the program, and that can be fearful for some individuals.”

Brown said there is a stigma to using WIC and that public health officials should strongly advocate to remove. “If you’re eligible for these programs, then let’s make sure that people who are eligible can use them without stigma.”

You can find more information about WIC eligibility in Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Missouri here.

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Matthew Moore is senior producer for Ozarks at Large.
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