The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) provides Federal grants to States for supplemental foods, health care referrals, and nutrition education for low-income pregnant, breastfeeding, and non-breastfeeding postpartum women, and to infants and children up to age five who are found to be at nutritional risk.
I hate WIC.
I’m so thankful for WIC.
These two thoughts follow seamlessly one after the other as the milk, eggs, peanut butter and other sundries pass on the grocery store conveyor belt.
We signed up when I became pregnant with our oldest and have been on and off of the Women Infants and Children Supplemental Nutrition program ever since.
Every time I work – adjunct teaching stints and a year as a pastor – we call and drop ourselves from the system. Every time we return to one income, we reapply.
Every few months I cart our kids to the small, gray office and fill out reams of paperwork. The kids alternate between playing and clinging anxiously. Twice a year the visits include a weight and measure and much dreaded finger pricks to check for iron count.
Despite frequent well visits at the pediatrician’s office, the WIC office needs its own numbers.
At times I feel indignant at the intrusion. I’m angry for my children who cry at being poked and prodded. How much blood, how much information do we need to give for a few dollars worth of food?
Then I remind myself we need the money.
It’s their office. They set the rules.
Does this make me a bad mother?
Or, would pride that kept us from receiving such assistance make me a bad mother? I'm never entirely sure.
After these intrusions we squeeze into a smaller office. I wrangle kids on my knees while answering questions about our food consumption and setting nutrition goals for each of my children.
At the end of the visit I leave with a ream of checks averaging $120 worth of food per month. We received the most when the oldest kids were four and two and I was pregnant with twins, we’re nearly off the system now as the twins prepare to age-out next summer at five years old.
Do I look too wealthy? What will they think of the Marmot ski coat I wear, the $300 dollar coat I got on clearance for $50 after Christmas one year?
Do we look poor?
These are the questions I ask myself waiting in line at the grocery store.
With just one week left to use August’s checks I head to the grocery store with six in hand – two for as little as $8 each, two for about $30 and two somewhere in the middle.
I keep the checks in the shopping cart and subtly check and recheck acceptable sizes and brands for peanut butter, grains and cereal as I hurry through the store. When in doubt, I sheepishly pull out the large white pamphlet that clarifies.
I hope I don’t run into anyone I know.
We travel one town over now to bigger grocery chains to use our checks because the small local grocery store requires the cashier to call a manager to approve WIC checks. The unwanted attention and wait feel mortifying enough to warrant a ten minute drive.
The cashier is unfriendly and I wonder if it’s because of the WIC checks lined up in front of her. Is she judging me? I feel myself get snappish, then reign it in. Maybe she’s just tired, maybe it’s been a long day.
I planned to get three checks, but ended up with four separate orders on the checkout line. I feel bad for anyone who gets in line behind me, not knowing I will check out not just once, but four times. I wonder what they think of my food, of me. Maybe they’re happy the State gives needy families wholesome foods like milk and cheese. Maybe they despise the fact that I choose the more expensive brands.
I group the food by check, separating each with a spacer. I sign the checks ahead of time to speed the process along. Still, it takes time and often I fail to get exactly the right product. Sometimes the rules change and items that were once ok are no longer allowed.
When election season rolls around people inevitably make nasty comments about those who receive government assistance, about people who supposedly feel entitled to benefits.
Are they talking about me? Do I feel entitled to these benefits?
No, mostly I feel embarrassed and hugely grateful.
Does my family need WIC? That’s a question I haven’t been able to answer.
At some point we decided that not accepting the extra help would be a prideful and foolish move especially in the years when the sudden break-down of a vehicle or unexpected home repair left us in debt to credit card companies.
There’s something about mouths to feed that lowers the playing field for me, that helps make it all a little clearer.
My children need to eat healthy food, so I do what I can to make it happen.
Even when it’s the last thing I want to do.