On Saturday while Dan filled the kitchen with steaming pickles I worked on my own food gathering project: organizing our WIC checks into a coherent shopping list. I've known for years that I'd qualify for this free food program, but I hadn't yet taken the government up on its offer because I'd heard it was a pain in the ass. Then Dan made a comment about me spending a lot on food, and I figured it was time to swallow my pride and apply. This week I did my first full shop with WIC. Long story short, it was a mega pain in the ass.
I'll explain for those who are unfamiliar with the program.
WIC stands for "Women Infants and Children" and it refers not to who should exit first from a sinking vessel but to who should receive free nutritious food from the federal government. This program exists separately from SNAP/Food Stamps. It provides checks for specific "healthy" food items to pregnant women, nursing women, and children under 5. Unlike SNAP dollars which pay for any food at the supermarket bar prepared items and supplements, WIC checks can only be used for VERY SPECIFIC things. The items approved by the USDA are published in a little booklet which I hear changes frequently.
As compared to other government services, applying for WIC was relatively easy. I didn't need to provide income verification because we already qualify for SNAP, nor did I need to bring any bills. But in terms of time spent applying, WIC takes the vitamin-fortified cake. When I called to schedule my intake I spent at least a half hour on the phone giving dates of birth, social and insurance numbers, medical history and demographic data on all of us. Them the in-person appointment for which I had to bring all my children took a whopping TWO HOURS. We had to all get weighed and measured, and there were so many questions to answer. It's hard to remember each child's exact gestational age when they're in the room beating on each other. My tip for anyone applying for WIC the first time is DON'T TRY TO DEMONSTRATE NUTRITIONAL NEED; BRING YOUR KIDS A BOAT-LOAD OF SNACKS.
After my intake appointment I got a wallet filled with WIC checks. These checks are what makes the WIC shop rather intense.
Each check has a list of food items typed on it. You must buy everything on the check at one time or forfeit the other items.
So to go shopping with these things you have to figure out in advance exactly what you're buying. For each month I have something like 20 checks, each listing several unconnected items. One gallon of milk, 36oz of cereal, 16oz peanut butter, 16oz canned beans for example. Then another check with a different amount of milk, a different amount of cereal, another can of beans and something random like oatmeal. So I add up all the checks to figure out what to grab in each aisle (hence the spread sheet) and then reconstitute it check-by-check at the point of sale. From the Dairy case I grab three galons of milk, but when I go to pay I put a check down on the belt and say, "Okay, here's one gallon of milk, here's one can of beans... where the fuck is that oatmeal? Under all these baby foods?"
Check out averages a half an hour, on top of the hour it takes to shop. I kept having to tell the people behind me, "Sorry, I'm paying with WIC checks, you may want to choose a shorter line."
A half hour is assuming you managed to pick the right items and the manager doesn't need to be called over to dispute brands of peanut butter. Within each category there are only a few specific brands and sizes that qualify for the program. These are the things the government nutritionists have decided provide the right intersection of health affordability. But I'm not exactly sure what signifies health to them... micronutrients? Vitamins? Why do Frosted Mini Spooners or Go Diego Go cereal count as "healthy" but Rasin Bran is barred from the list? Sure, Dan calls that personal weakness "sugar bran cereal" and he's pretty much right, but his favorite Honey Bunches of Oats is no less sugary and that's on the list. Good thing I don't like the almond clusters, because we now have two boxes in our pantry.
Which brings up an odd suspicion I have with this program. It's not making us any healthier. Quite the reverse, actually. We didn't eat cereal in the past, except for Cheerios as a snack in a pinch. Now we have four boxes in our pantry (Cheerios, Honey Bunches and Rice Krispies ready to transform into their preferable 'treat' form) and they all stand ready to replace our healthier breakfast options like homemade bread and jam, or toast and eggs, or oatmeal. Would we be better off as a family without the free cereal? Without Langers apple juice or frozen OJ? With expensive local milk instead of the store brand kind, albeit much less of it?
Our WIC allotment includes some money for produce, but it's a small portion of the total shop. $18 separated into a check for $10 and a check for $8. That means I need a group of vegetables that costs no more than eight dollars, and another group of vegetables that costs no more than ten. On Monday the Market Basket was so crowded that I couldn't get to the scale to weigh everything, so I only chose $6 of bananas and apples before giving up. Then I went to the frozen vegetable section to find $10 of things where the prices were easier to see. In the end I made a mistake on all my vegetable calculations, and I left about $5 of government money on the table. Dan suggests next time I do the vegetables first when I have the most energy. I suggested next time not doing it at Market Basket. Stop&Shop is closer and open after the kids go to bed.
When I added up the pile of reciepts (each check gives a separate receipt, sorry environment) we ended up with $125 worth of free groceries out of this month's shop. That's with choosing to forgo several gallons of milk and dozens of eggs. As well as 26 more bottles of baby food I just couldn't deal with. He doesn't even eat baby food yet, and now our basement looks like we're stockpiling against Armageddon.
I have an internal tension about my relationship to WIC. On one hand I am a stay-home-mother, and therefore a free-stuff-gatherer, and there is nothing I like better than delighting my children with something that cost no money. On the other hand I am a food hippy and a processed grains nazi and packaging-a-phobic, and a little part of me feels the need to repent when I serve my kids Honey Bunches of Oats with ultra pasteurized 1% milk.
The tension should not only be internal, this should be a collective discussion. Who defines "health" for the must vulnerable members of society? Kellogs? The US Dairy industry? I mean come on, eight gallons a milk per month to one tub of peanut butter? Those peanut farmers need to hire better lobbyists!
I am also aware that this is a very small program in a vast portfolio of government spending, and the conversation about our national diet should neither start nor end here. It's fair that the environmentally catastrophically price distortions which exist everywhere in the food supply chain also exist in the subsidized food chain. These problems will not be solved by me making fun of Go Diego Go.
Also, I'll keep you posted if the shopping ever gets easier with this thing. In two months I have to attend a state-mandated nutrition class. I can't wait!!!