Childhood hunger and food insecurity have risen dramatically in the U.S. during the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent economic recession. Since March 2020, 1 in every 4 children has experienced household food insecurity, where their access to adequate nutrition was limited by their family’s financial resources.
The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC, provides nutritional support and nutrition education to food insecure children and families in poverty. WIC has proven health benefits for participating women and children, including lower rates of preterm birth, decreased food insecurity, and improved nutrition. However, prior to the pandemic, only about half of all eligible families received WIC benefits. One reason for these low participation rates are the administrative burdens that families face when enrolling in WIC and when accessing and redeeming WIC benefits.
In a recent study in JAMA, Penn Medicine researchers examined one way in which these burdens may have worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic. Participating families receive electronic benefits transfer (EBT) debit cards, which they can use to purchase approved food and beverage products from vendors who accept WIC benefits. Nine “offline EBT” states (Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Utah, Texas, and Wyoming) currently require WIC beneficiaries to present these cards in-person at their local WIC office every 3-4 months to reload their benefits. In all other states, WIC EBT cards are automatically reloaded online (remotely) each month, and beneficiaries do not have to travel to WIC clinics in-person during the pandemic.
Did offline EBT reloading limit access to benefits when they were needed most, because eligible families chose not to risk in-person contact during the pandemic? To estimate this effect, researchers compared WIC participation before and during the pandemic in online and offline EBT states. Prior to the pandemic, WIC participation declined in both online and offline states; during the pandemic, however, WIC participation increased sharply in online EBT states while it continued to decline in offline EBT states.