eWIC cards save time for store clerks and families

RBC | For more than four decades, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) has provided access to nutritious foods and other nutrition-related services to eligible low-income women, infants and children. Last year, the program’s well-documented benefits helped improve the health and food security of 157,000 Coloradans. The WIC shopping experience, however, has been time-consuming and arduous for participants and grocery clerks alike. Grocers had to check each grocery item against a list of WIC-approved foods, often contributing to longer checkout lines. WIC shoppers had to purchase staples in bulk, rather than as needed. New technology now is streamlining the WIC shopping experience. In pilot programs that began in Pueblo and Northeast Colorado last spring, and a statewide rollout that began in Southeast Colorado in August, participants shop for WIC groceries by swiping a new eWIC card and entering a personal identification number (PIN). “It’s like a debit card,” said one participant. “[It] makes everything zip by without holding up the line and bringing unwanted attention to myself.” Each WIC household receives one eWIC card, which electronically tracks the family’s food allowance, deducts food as it is purchased and adds food allocated each month. Families can track their WIC purchases in several ways, including checking their most recent cash register receipt. Previously, the program required participants to get their entire month’s food allowance in a single transaction. The eWIC system allows them to pick up items as needed throughout the month, prompting this praise from a pilot program participant: “I love that I can buy milk as needed and not have to buy five gallons at the same time. And I don’t have to worry about it going bad before it expires.” WIC foods are purchased at 452 Colorado groceries and farm stands, and eWIC is earning kudos from retailers as well. “From our point of view, it’s super simple,” said Jill Fiedler, store manager of the Holyoke Market. Fiedler said before her store began participating in eWIC, cashiers required additional training for WIC transactions. “Now the computer does all the thinking,” she said. “The system knows when clients are out of a WIC item. Our cashiers don’t have to do any of that.” Fiedler said eWIC transactions also are processed more quickly, meaning stores get paid sooner. Erin Ulric, director of the Colorado WIC program at the state’s Department of Public Health and Environment, and Lynn Ireland, Nutrition Unit manager, devote their workdays to the program’s success. They cite a litany of benefits extending beyond program participants. “One-third of infants born in Colorado participate in the WIC program,” Ulric said. “WIC provides nutritious groceries, nutrition education, breastfeeding support and other services free of charge to Colorado families who qualify. Our goal is to help keep pregnant and breastfeeding women and children under age 5 healthy.” “Meanwhile, 60 million federal dollars per year in WIC purchases are infused into the state economy,” Ireland added. “It’s such a win-win. It’s money well-spent.” The Northwest Colorado eWIC rollout is expected to take place in October. By early 2017, all Colorado WIC participants will be using eWIC cards instead of paper checks.