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E197: USDA plans for online WIC Benefits

Hosted by: Kelly Brownell (Duke)
February 28, 2023


In February, 2023, the US Department of Agriculture announced plans to streamline and modernize WIC – the Women Infants and Children Program focused on supplemental nutrition. We’ll talk about the future of WIC today with Stacy Dean, the Deputy Undersecretary for USDA’s Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services.

Stacy Dean was appointed by President Biden to serve as the Deputy Under Secretary for USDA’s Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services where she will work to advance the President’s agenda on increasing nutrition assistance for struggling families and individuals as well as tackling systemic racism and barriers to opportunity that have denied so many the chance to get ahead. Prior to joining President Biden’s Team at USDA, Dean served as the Vice President for Food Assistance Policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). She directed CBPP’s food assistance team, which published frequent reports on how federal nutrition programs affect families and communities and developed policies to improve them. In addition to her work on federal nutrition programs, Dean directed CBPP efforts to integrate the delivery of health and human services programs at the state and local levels. Before joining CBPP, she worked as a budget analyst at the Office of Management and Budget. Dean earned her B.A. and master’s degree in public policy from the University of Michigan.

Interview Summary

So you play a key role in these really important programs. So let’s start by describing why modernizing WIC and SNAP – especially regarding the shopping experience is so important.

I’d be happy to. I think we should start with what are these programs just to level set. SNAP used to be known as food stamps and it is our country’s largest food assistance program. It helps about 42 million people and 22 million households afford groceries. We provide that benefit through what looks like a credit card or a debit card and we call it electronic benefit transfer or EBT. And WIC, of course, is a program supplemental to SNAP that offers specific foods for pregnant and postpartum women, infants and toddlers. SNAP can be used to purchase any food in the grocery store, whereas WIC is a specific prescription food package. So your question about why is moving to online shopping so important? I think the bottom line is this administration really believes government services must be designed and delivered with a focus on the actual experience and needs of people they serve. The way Americans shop and pay for food has evolved in recent years and we have so many choices now as consumers. We want to make sure that those choices are extended to households who are using SNAP or WIC to pay for food.

Just the vast numbers of people that are touched by these programs is really impressive. Even a small change in the way the program is administered would have a big impact because so many people are affected. Let’s talk a little bit more about the shopping experience. I gather there is a tension now to how customers can move to a more digital experience. While that might seem like an easy thing, it’s a pretty big deal, isn’t it?

That’s right. Moving to online shopping, but more importantly online payment, has been a little bit sticky. But, we are so pleased with our retail partners who have helped us make this work. The real issue is does the store have a platform to order food and then a platform to accept payment. A lot of the stores who participate in these programs don’t have that available. So, we’ve been trying to work with them to make sure that they’re ready to take payment through electronic means.

That can make a big difference in people’s lives. I can imagine convenience, some people not having access to transportation to get to stores, people who are homebound, ill. There are a lot of people that could have this effect the way they shop, isn’t that right?

That’s absolutely right. We want to make sure that our program participants have choices. You gave some great examples of how they might deploy those choices keeping themselves safer maybe by wanting to pick up the food and not go into the store. That was incredibly important during the pandemic. Another issue is SNAP participants are incredibly thrifty shoppers. The ability to search around for the best price point and the best quality is really important. If you have limited transportation, if it costs you money because you have to take a cab or pay a friend to get to the grocery store, you want to make sure that trip is going to be really worthwhile. Online shopping offers that as a basic enhancement and allows I think our benefit dollars to stretch even further.

You mentioned one barrier to the online shopping and it’s just that the systems may not be set up for various food vendors. Are there other barriers online shopping for WIC and mobile payments on SNAP?

SNAP online shopping has been an option. It was originally a small option starting in about 2020 and it has really grown. But WIC is going to be a little bit different because in the WIC programs, states manage the relationships with retailers. Whereas in SNAP, it’s USDA that manages that relationship. We’ve got to work with each of our state and tribal governments who operate WIC. They have to turn around and create those payment relationships with our grocers. So imagine your Kroger or Publix or some other large chain, you’ve got to work out individual payment relationships with each of the states that you operate in. That will probably slow us down a little bit, but there’s incredible enthusiasm for offering this option. I would imagine the first few states will be a little tricky and then hopefully they will sort out how to make this work and we will see it move quickly across the country. Another barrier that is worth pointing out is that there are lots of stores across the country, particularly small, independent-owned businesses who don’t have an online shopping platform. We are really trying to do a lot of work to figure out how we make sure we bring them in and that we’re supporting them because we don’t want large stores with an online footprint crowding out small independent stores.

I can understand the enthusiasm. Has there been discussion of how the food vendors might change the way they do things as a program this large might come online? Let’s fast-forward to that time when this program is available. Would you see potentials for the vendors to change the way they market their foods, the way they price their foods, the way they deliver their foods? Do you think anything might change on their end that might affect people’s experience?

There are two ideas that come to mind. As I mentioned, the WIC food package is a prescription package. It’s designed specifically for the age of the child or whether the mother’s pregnant or postpartum. So right now, if a shopper’s moving through the store, they’ve got to move through the whole store and find the individual WIC foods. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if you were ordering online and there was just basically a WIC room with everything right there and you wouldn’t have to sift through and find items? I think that would add incredible convenience to the program. In SNAP, retailers have the opportunity to offer incentives or discounts on certain foods like fruits and vegetables. You could imagine if the retailer knew through an online forum that a shopper was a SNAP participant, it could really highlight the discounts around healthy foods, which would improve the shopping experience, I think.

That would be so helpful. I could even see potentially some entrepreneuring tech people finding a way to alert shoppers to where things are cheapest, given that there might be multiple places a person could ultimately shop online. If you want to buy food A, this online tech thing might be able to tell you that that food costs this much at this store and that much at that store and that might make the shopping experience even easier. I’m just thinking ahead, but I wonder if something like that might not be possible ultimately.

Well, I’d love that in my own life. I think that would be great to offer to our program participants. I think another enhancement that I would love, we haven’t yet embarked on this journey at USDA, but we have this incredible tool called MyPlate that helps translate the dietary guidelines into recipes and shopping lists. All of the advice we offer is targeted to a budget consumer, someone who’s buying food with our program benefits. I would really like that to be something that helps people in the shopping aisle or while they’re online, right? This sort of interactive example – hey, I want this recipe, where are the food items? And again, it would be pulling those budget conscious choices for our consumers. There’s a lot of opportunity for us to improve the shopping experience for our program participants.

The SNAP program has already seen advancements in this online shopping sphere. How successful has that been?

It’s really been remarkable. In March, 2020, we had about 35,000 SNAP households shopping online across the whole country. When the pandemic hit, USDA and states knew that they had to accelerate the rolling out of the online shopping pilot. Today, we have about 4 million households are shopping online or about 9% of SNAP purchases overall are happening online. That’s a tremendous growth over a short period of time. Of course, there were all kinds of innovations and changes during the pandemic provoked by the emergency and this is one that I think is an incredible enhancement and we want to see grow even more.

Well, that’s pretty impressive growth, as you said. Why isn’t it higher than 9% though? If this is available, why aren’t more using it?

I don’t think that’s that far out of line with the overall norm for all consumers. Many shoppers still in fact shop at their local grocery store and most of our redemptions are happening at big grocery stores, big box stores. It’s probably the case that many participants have that kind of convenient shopping available to them. But for those who don’t, online shopping is a tremendous enhancement.

Just a little bit from my own personal experience. When the pandemic came about and I started using delivery services like Instacart for having groceries delivered, when I was able to shop at stores again and started comparing prices to what was available online and what I was paying at the store, it was more online, like five, 10, 15% even in some cases. Is there any way to prevent that problem occurring so that people who do choose to shop online might not have to pay more than people who are going to the actual store? I mean, of course there’s the built-in cost of having things delivered, but beyond that, the store was also charging more.

Well, again, I put a lot of faith in our program participants. They are very savvy shoppers and they are living on an incredibly tight budget. I’m pretty sure they’re going to be shopping where prices are the best for them. You were comparing maybe your local grocery store to online in your personal experience, but it’s also true for some of our program participants, right? They may only have a not particularly well-stocked convenience store in their neighborhood or they may live in a very remote or rural area where there’s one store and it’s pretty far away. There’s just different context to their choice than what you or I might be doing.

 

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