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Online Grocery Shopping Could Close Equity Gaps

Food policy advocates in California are asking the state to provide online purchasing opportunities for people who get benefits through WIC.

Just about every  time her family needs groceries, Angelique Schanbeck loads her three children, ages 3 months, 2 and 4, into the family car. The Sacramento family relies on the Women, Infants, and Children Program to help pay for groceries. And the program doesn’t allow online grocery shopping.

Late last month, California’s food stamps program, CalFresh, began allowing beneficiaries to buy groceries online at participating stores—a recent upgrade to the program that lets families skip potentially perilous grocery shopping trips during the coronavirus pandemic and limit the spread of the disease. Now, food policy advocates are asking the state to provide the same purchasing opportunity for pregnant women and families with young children who get benefits through WIC.

Hunger has increased sharply across the nation during the pandemic.

“We applaud the new availability of online shopping for [CalFresh] customers, but why would we not extend the same service to the women, infants, and children who rely on WIC?” says Jared Call, Senior Advocate at California Food Policy Advocates. “Grocery delivery helps families avoid in-person interaction at stores and adhere to stay at home orders.”

Schanbeck, 30, said being able to order groceries online would help her family reduce their risk of contracting COVID-19.

“The littlest one is still nursing, so we all have to go in the car since I never know these days how long shopping will take,” says Schanbeck, who does her family’s grocery shopping because her husband is medically retired from the army. The family does not qualify for CalFresh, so, she says, the WIC benefit “helps us meet our food budget each month.”

WIC is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and administered by each state as a supplemental nutrition program for low-income pregnant and postpartum women, and children up to age 5 who meet income criteria. Participants must be at or below 185% of the federal poverty level (equivalent to an annual income of $47,638 for a family of four). Families that include more children 5 and under qualify at higher income levels as well.

Services include nutrition and breastfeeding counseling, referrals to health care and a defined list of nutritious food that the benefits can be used for, including milk, infant formula, beans, whole grains and fresh produce. (Package sizes are strictly defined as well, but requirements have been loosened somewhat during the pandemic.) Last year, WIC program participants in California received, on average, $44 per month to supplement their grocery trips.

Health equity, not just convenience, is a key reason why allowing WIC recipients to shop online is so critical. California has the largest WIC program in the U.S., according to a 2017 report. In the state, 60% of all babies received WIC services, 16 percentage points more than the national average. Most recipients are people of color: 75% are Latino, 12% are White, 6.5% are African American, 6% are Asian, and 0.5% are Native American.

Death rates from COVID-19 fall along similar racial divides in the state, highlighting the urgency of allowing California WIC beneficiaries to use all possible resources to increase safety—including shopping for groceries online. According to May 16 data from the California Department of Public Health, Latinos make up under 40% of the state’s population but more than half of COVID-19 cases and close to 40% of deaths. Alarmingly, African Americans account for 6% of the population and 5% of COVID-19 cases, but 10% of deaths. And an analysis of health department data in late April by the Los Angeles Times found that Black and Latino Californians ages 18 to 64 are dying more frequently of the coronavirus than Whites and Asians in same age range.

It’s an equity issue.

History tells us why communities of color are being disproportionately affected, says Connor Maxwell, a senior policy analyst for Race and Ethnicity Policy at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C. “Inequality is magnified in times of national hardship. … Persistent segregation has restricted tens of millions of people of color to some of the most densely populated urban areas in the country; structural and environmental racism has produced extraordinarily high rates of serious chronic health conditions among people of color; and entrenched barriers in the health system continue to prevent people of color from obtaining the care they need.”

WIC did make a recent change in California that could help facilitate online shopping. Since April, all WIC recipients now have a benefits card for use at checkout, while previously (and through the fall for beneficiaries in other states) California WIC recipients were limited to paper checks—not a payment form usable online. Hilary Seligman, who directs the Food Policy, Health, and Hunger Research Program at UCSF’s Center for Vulnerable Populations at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital says one reason CalFresh is ahead of WIC in online benefits is that the program had already been pilot-tested in the state in the past few years. Californians can use CalFresh benefits to buy groceries online through Walmart and Amazon Fresh, so far.

WIC has also been very relationship-based, with women visiting WIC offices every month for nutritional and health counseling for themselves and their children, Seligman says. But that should not impede WIC participants’ ability to easily get food for themselves and their children, especially now, Seligman says.

“It’s an equity issue,” Seligman says.

“We are essentially creating a structural difference between poor women who are not easily able to shop and eat, and non-poor women who are able to easily shop and eat,” says Seligman. “And those structural differences have ramifications across other dimensions—like not being able to use your benefits in May of 2020 as easily as you had recently, and concentrating on energy dense, but nutritionally poor foods for your kids and wondering how long that will last.”

Being able to purchase groceries online and have them delivered is a matter of safety.

Cassandra Jensen, 35, would love to be able to shop for groceries online using her WIC benefits. Nearing the end of her pregnancy with child No. 3, Jensen, was getting increasingly anxious about grocery shopping as the coronavirus pandemic dragged on in California in early May. Jensen, who lives in Isleton, in Sacramento County, has two sons, ages 3 and 5, who often come with her to grocery shop. “It would be nice to shop online,” she says.

Some beneficiaries may be able to order online and pay at the store, reducing shopping time, according to a spokesperson for the Western Region of the Food and Nutrition Service, the division of the USDA that administers WIC.

“WIC participants can explore whether any of their local stores offer online ordering,” the spokesperson wrote in an email. The agency “continues to provide technical assistance to state agencies interested in developing online ordering programs with their authorized vendors.”

Angelique Schanbeck says since the pandemic began, she has shopped online at times for items she qualifies for under WIC, but instead has paid for them out of pocket, opting to underuse the benefits rather than risk going to the store. But this has decreased the family’s food budget.

Hunger has increased sharply across the nation during the pandemic and its associated economic damage. One way to help increase food access is to allow people to shop online, says Kathy Saile, Director of No Kid Hungry, California. The ability to order groceries online would help address equity issues, even after the pandemic.

“The reality at this time is that being able to purchase groceries online and have them delivered is a matter of safety,” Saile says, “but even under normal circumstances, online purchasing and delivery reduces significant barriers for many low-income families, like lack of access to transportation, childcare and busy work schedules.”

This story is produced in partnership with the California Health Report


Fran Kritz is a health policy writer based outside Washington, D.C. Fran has been a contributor to the California Health Report for more than a decade and also writes frequently for the Washington Post and NPR.org.