Behind Food Assistance Programs


Editor’s Note: Writers reported from Charleston and Morgantown, W.Va., as well as Baltimore, Md.

Over the years misconceptions about welfare and government programs have resisted cultural shifts, White House administrations, social movements and war. Since its beginning in the Great Depression, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) has been associated with despondency and desperation. Decades later, these types of welfare programs are still misunderstood.

SNAP was created in the 1930s in response to the Great Depression and a decrease in food access to individuals across the U.S. Decades later, in 1974, Women, Infants and Children (WIC) was established to combat malnutrition within pregnant and infant populations and is exclusive to expectant, postpartum and breastfeeding women, infants and children under 5. For potential participants, the most significant difference between these two programs are the populations that can enroll.

For retailers looking to provide SNAP and WIC supplies, there is a list of requirements they must meet.

According to Heidi Staats, a social worker at West Virginia’s Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR), the only requirements for SNAP is that retailers must meet three categories with dairy, protein, and processed foods.

“They are not necessarily healthy foods,” said Staats of the available SNAP products. “That’s basically why convenience stores are often SNAP-authorized versus WIC.”

Meanwhile, in order to become WIC-certified, retailers must go through an extensive application process, one that some have described as a “hassle,” said Staats.

“For WIC we have a large application process,” said Staats. “It’s about a 22-page application. The reason it’s so many pages is because they have to meet minimum stock requirements federally defined within our regulations.”

Retailers who are WIC-certified must carry at least eight gallons of milk (two gallons of whole milk and six gallons of low-fat milk), two varieties of fresh fruits, two varieties of vegetables and infant formula. For smaller vendors, it’s more difficult to stock the shelves with these items than it is for corporate retailers, like Walmart and Kroger.

Mountain People’s Co-op in Morgantown, W.Va., is one of the area’s local suppliers of fresh, organic produce and groceries. Like most food retailers, it is SNAP-certified.

Lillian Rose, the store’s weekend manager, has noticed how excited local customers are about the SNAP certification and believes the store encourages healthy eating among those who wouldn’t ordinarily shop for organic products. The SNAP certification has been quite successful for the small business, but Rose has found that the application process for WIC isn’t as easy as it was for SNAP.

“We don’t do WIC at this time, but it is something that we’re trying to look into,” said Rose. “It’s just a lot of paperwork and forms, but honestly, we haven’t had a huge demand for WIC.”

Despite the complex application process, Staats said both programs can be beneficial for retailers, especially in rural areas with low access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

“I can tell you that in a smaller county or a rural county with poverty, SNAP is going to be anywhere from 10 to 12 percent of their business,” said Staats. “For WIC, it averages anywhere from 1 to 8 percent. If you talk to the retailers directly, the reason they do it is for the community image.”

Image often plays a key role when it comes to retailers deciding to become SNAP or WIC certified because it’s enticing for customers — even those who aren’t SNAP or WIC participants. Having WIC certification offers some a competitive advantage if one retailer sells fresh produce and another does not. According to Staats, many customers prefer a retailer that carries WIC products because the products are healthy and nutrition criteria has been evaluated.

“If we could get a small convenience store to expand their options, we’re not just effecting change for the WIC population but also the whole population in that area,” said Staats.

SNAP and WIC are two of the largest food assistance programs in the United States. In West Virginia alone, the WIC program serves 75 percent of infants and one in three pregnant women.

However, many other individuals who might be eligible for SNAP or WIC never apply for the programs. Based on her experience with clients, Staats said individuals don’t participate in the WIC program because they don’t realize they are eligible or in need of assistance. A 2014 report from the USDAfound other reasons for lack of participation, including administrative hurdles, discouragement from previous denials or employers and a lack of awareness about application processes or eligibility requirements.

“Most people who don’t apply don’t understand the definition of ‘food insecure’,” said Staats. “Because not having access to healthy food all 30 days of the month makes you food insecure.”

Staats acknowledged that many SNAP participants who are also eligible for WIC believe they don’t need aid from both programs, despite the fact that SNAP benefits rarely stretch to the end of the month. Staats said that women usually choose to end their WIC participation as soon as their children have reached pre-school age. At that point they feel there is no need for cheaper infant formula, and the child has moved on to table foods, which are available with SNAP benefits.

Rachel Tucker, the senior program associate of Hunger Solutions in Baltimore, Md., also shared the importance of understanding food insecurity, believing individuals in her area understand it.

“It’s about not having both sort of geographic and financial or economic access to the food that you need and the primary reason is that you don’t have enough money,” said Tucker. “You don’t have enough money in your wallet, your wages are low, things like that, and people get that. I just don’t think everybody terms it that way.”

Both Staats and Tucker have witnessed the issues of the food system first hand and acknowledge there are policies that need to be revisited. For Staats, her №1 concern is the national stigma associated with SNAP and WIC programs.

Despite a 2015 report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities stating only 3 percent of benefits went to ineligible households, Staats says that members of the public seem to believe that many are “cheating the system.”

Alicia Frum applied for SNAP 13 years ago at the DHHR office in Morgantown, W.Va., and has relied on the help ever since. As a mother, Frum is thankful for these programs, saying her family wouldn’t survive without them.

“I appreciate the help that the DHHR does provide and all the food banks do,” said Frum. “Not just me if I ever need it, but to everyone. If it were a community, we should all act like it. They should want to help us. They should try to help us as much as possible.”

Frum is one of many individuals who adhere to the rules and regulations of the SNAP program and use the benefits she receives to feed her family.

“The perception is that these people abuse the program or that they’re lazy and they sit at home and just want to live off the system,” said Staats. “But that’s not accurate. A lot of these people are going to school and trying to better themselves. There are folks working minimum-wage jobs with no possibility of ever meeting the needs of a household,” said Staats. “I also think, from WIC’s perspective, we see a lot of young moms who don’t have a lot of support.”

Common misconceptions are that SNAP benefits go to people who could be working, when in fact a majority of SNAP recipients are children and the elderly, according to Tucker. Of the remaining working-aged individuals, most of them are employed.

Tucker also spoke about the misconceptions of SNAP recipients in Maryland.

“People like to make arguments about poor people being lazy and all these awful things that we know aren’t true because we know that an overwhelming majority of people on SNAP are working the year prior and working after they’re on SNAP,” said Tucker.

Many of the misconceptions about individuals scheming the system come from unusual, publicized cases seen on the news, such as a West Virginia family using their SNAP benefits in Florida, an incident that Staats says is legal as the state allows its residents to take their benefits with them.

Staats is also concerned about the current relationship between the DHHR and WIC retailers. Typically, the program’s advisory council is heavily represented by corporate grocers.

“I need the small man who’s struggling to compete to have more input and be more involved in what’s happening to him,” said Staats. “I think it could definitely change the landscape and change the way programs are implemented if we had more input from those guys.”

Receiving input from small local grocery providers may only get more difficult in coming years. Starting in 2018, WIC will no longer be able to pay for the required Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) machines, leaving the expenses solely to the retailer.

“We have 283. We used to have 450,” said Staats regarding the number of certified WIC retailers in West Virginia. “How can I ask a guy who makes about $5,000 a year from WIC to pay $20 more a month for his machine? That’s $240 from a guy who is struggling to stay open.”

The new regulation may push retailers to opt out of the WIC program, creating more distance between families and food access. The regulation also makes it harder for Staats to convince retailers to apply for certification, a challenge she already struggles with. Unlike SNAP, WIC requires retailers to reapply every three years.

“In our central region, we only had 25 WIC vendors in the first place, and I had three that chose not to reauthorize because it’s ‘not worth the hassle’,” said Staats. “We now have this big expansive space that has nothing because it just ‘wasn’t worth the hassle’.”

Despite the existing issues within the SNAP and WIC programs, Staats sticks around because her job allows her to make connections with women and children and help them in ways other jobs would not.

“You know having a baby is a wonderful, life-changing event and we get to be a part of that,” said Staats. “Building that relationship goes way beyond affecting what they’re serving on their table to their children. It’s the purpose, but it’s much larger than that for a lot of women.”