I was at the grocery store today, picking up a few staples. As I went through the checkout, I spotted a sweet family. They had two carts, not because they had that much food, but to contain their four adorable blond boys. Dad was busy keeping the oldest three occupied, though they were making it pretty easy that day (I'm sure it's not always like that). The baby was contentedly chewing his toes in his car seat. Mom was managing the conveyor belt. None of the kids looked older than 4. All were clean, well dressed, well behaved, and the toddler looked up at his dad with an adoring expression that took my breath away. This was a close knit, loving family.
After a moment, I looked over again. Their transaction seemed to be taking a while, and then I spotted the reason why. Dad was holding the WIC folder. That explained it.
The Women, Infants and Children program is meant to provide healthy foods to pregnant and nursing mothers, and to babies and children up to age 5. They weigh and measure everyone every 3 months, and check their blood iron level for anemia. It's a program with good intentions, but many flaws.
When you shop with WIC, you can't just buy what you want. The WIC checks (which are only redeemable for certain weeks, to make sure you can't use them all at once) tell you you can get, for example, 24 oz of approved cereal, 6 half gallons of milk (yes, they phrase it that way), a 12 oz loaf of approved bread, a dozen eggs, a 16 oz jar or smaller of approved peanut butter OR 1 lb of d"ried beans OR one can of approved canned beans, and x amount of powdered OR x amount of liquid concentrated formula (not sure, since I always breastfed).
Approved is a word used a lot in this program. Granted, this is a NUTRITION program, and they want to make sure that the healthy peanut butter isn't swapped out for Nutella. But knowing which products are approved and which aren't, and doing the math to maximize that 24 oz of cereal between 3 boxes, left me in tears more than once during checkout. Things that can derail a WIC purchase include getting the wrong flavor of cereal, choosing baked beans instead of pork and beans, or assuming that since the generic product is cheaper, it would be the money saving option for the WIC program and it would be allowed. (No.) Then you have to leave the line, fix you order, and come back to face the music.
Because that's the worst part - at checkout, you have to group your items into separate orders for each WIC check, and the manager on duty has to come over and approve each transaction. There's no "quick stop for milk" with WIC checks. It's a slow, laborious process. Every item has to be checked against the WIC list, and sometimes it scans as "not approved" even though it's right there on your list, and you have to explain that there's something wrong on their end. The cashier has to do math (I understand, it's not a job where you usually have to use that part of your brain, but adding cereal ounces isn't that hard). And invariably, that was when my children would start to make a fuss in line, wanting to go, to get candy, to see if the gumball machine had anything new, because it was just as tedious for them. Then I would feel the eyes on me, and hear the judging voices. Sometimes they were speaking out loud, but usually it was angry eye rolling and arm folding.
"Oh, she's one of THOSE."
"No wonder her kids are such brats. She probably pumps them full of junk and plops them in front of the TV all day. *snort* Trailer trash."
"Why did she have those kids if she can't even afford to feed them?"
"This is taking forever because of some Welfare mom."
"I wonder how many of those kids have the same dad."
I'm guessing that if you've read this blog for long, you get that most of those things are way off about me. (I do allow more TV and junk food than I should, but we eat healthy things too!) I received WIC benefits after the birth of each of my kids, because for one reason or another, something had gone awry financially during my pregnancy. I was grateful for the milk and eggs, but I rarely stuck with the program for more than one round of refills on the checks (6 months). It was humiliating and difficult. It made me feel an inch tall.
So as that family walked by, all four little boys smiling and chatting with their parents, I wanted to say something encouraging to them. Something to let them know that they were doing things right, that I knew how difficult it was, but that it would get better. But then I thought that it might make them self conscious, knowing that I saw what they were dealing with, so all I could muster was a soft "Beautiful family!" as they passed.
I wish I could tell them more. And to have a constant stream of support and empathy flowing into every grocery store for every family that has to use support programs to help feed their families. Because next month, next year, it could be you needing help.
EDITED TO NOTE - It's been brought to my attention that different states and even different counties within a state manage WIC differently. Some use plastic cards loaded with their benefits, others still use the paper checks, like here in PA. This is only meant to reflect my experience in my area, and that of some of my friends. If you use WIC, and they make it easier for you than this, thank your local office on your next visit!