Debit cards replace paper checks to ease shopping, reduce stigma, in government-funded nutrition program

Debit cards replace paper checks to ease shopping, reduce stigma, in government-funded nutrition program

The Women, Infants and Children program gets a long-awaited upgrade in California.

Mother’s Nutritional Center operates neighborhood stores in California that are authorized to redeem benefits from recipients of the federally-funded Women, Infants and Children program. The stores are part of a statewide switch from WIC vouchers or checks to electronic benefit cards. (Courtesy of Mother’s Nutritional Center)

California residents who receive money for food through the Women, Infants and Children Supplemental Nutrition Program are now getting electronic cards instead of the cumbersome paper vouchers they’ve shopped with since the program’s inception in 1974.

The federal program, better known by the acronym WIC, helps feed more than 1 million people statewide, most of them children.

Modernization is expected to make the benefit more efficient and easier to use, and less embarrassing, for those who participate in the program. The hope is that the cards also will encourage more participation from people who need the help and retailers who accept WIC payments.

The state is phasing in the new electronic system by region. In Orange County, where WIC helps about 50,000 families, card distribution at WIC offices will start on Monday, Nov. 11, and WIC programs in Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties will be upgraded early next year. The entire state is set for completion by March.

The WIC program provides essential nutrition to income-qualified women who are pregnant, breastfeeding, or suffered a recent pregnancy loss, and to children under 5. The benefits can be redeemed only at authorized stores.

The shift to plastic in California — one of the last states to make this switch — also will improve the program’s efficiency. Under the system that’s being phased out, participants had to purchase food items, in specific amounts listed on a 10-by-6-inch voucher, in one shopping trip. That means perishable items, such as milk, eggs, cheese and legumes, were purchased in bulk.

Read more on The Orange County Register