By Molly Pfaffenroth, NGA Senior Director of Government Relations
Every five years, Congress has the opportunity to consider Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR) legislation to improve child nutrition programs, including school meals and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). The last time a CNR bill was signed into law was the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010. This law expired in September 2015, and the programs within the law have been operating under congressional appropriations ever since.
Two committees in Congress have jurisdiction over writing and marking up a CNR bill—the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, and the House Committee on Education and Labor. This time around, the Senate is moving first on a pathway to considering legislation. At the beginning of 2021, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Ranking Member John Boozman (R-AR) both shared their plans for passing a CNR bill through the committee in 2021, which was made further evident by the committee’s March hearing focused on child nutrition programs. NGA has been meeting with Senate Agriculture Committee member offices to share our priorities for improving WIC from a retailer’s perspective in the CNR bill.
Independent community grocers play an essential role as the private partners in the public-private partnership of WIC. Without independent grocers’ involvement in WIC, the program would simply not operate effectively and many families in need would be left behind.
WIC as it exists today is very burdensome for participating vendors and is dominated by red tape and regulations that make it difficult for retailers to offer the program. NGA is advocating for Congress to develop a task force to examine the vendor management system and develop recommendations to improve the system.
For starters, the vendor licensing process can be quite slow depending on the state, resulting in well-equipped retailers being left out of the program for periods of time, including retailers in good standing that have already been granted a SNAP license, as well as multistore retailers that are approved for WIC at other store locations. Also standing in the way of retailers being able to offer this important program are unnecessary regulations such as the requirement for pre-approval on-site visits, duplicative paperwork and moratoriums for WIC licenses being approved.
A task force created by Congress to examine the WIC vendor management system, improve the licensing process and streamline WIC with SNAP, when feasible, would be highly instrumental in developing best practices and recommendations to improve the program for retailers. Any efforts to add additional regulations for retailers would be catastrophic to the success of the program and independent grocers’ ability to offer WIC and serve their communities.
Another aspect of WIC that Congress should consider is establishing a more productive system for product substitutions during times of disaster or public health emergency. Retailers have experienced challenges keeping WIC-approved foods in stock after natural disasters due to infrastructure and transportation issues, and during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic due to panic buying. This has resulted in situations where WIC participants have been unable to purchase certain products on their prescription lists until a waiver request has been submitted by the state WIC agency and approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which takes time.
Unfortunately, this often leads to WIC participants walking away from the store without their prescribed products in hand. To prevent this issue from happening again in the future and to create a more efficient product substitution process, Congress should include language in the CNR bill that directs states to include allowable WIC product substitutions in their emergency preparedness plans, as well as to permit WIC vendors operating in declared disaster or public health emergency areas with the flexibility to automatically substitute certain WIC-authorized items unavailable during and after the event.
There is also a significant need for USDA to examine the long-term effects of cost containment, competitiveness and peer grouping formulations for WIC vendors. States currently operate a peer group system in which retailers participating in WIC are grouped together to monitor vendor prices, to determine that reimbursements to stores reflect prices in like stores, and to ensure that prices are cost- competitive. Federal regulations require states to have a methodology for establishing peer group systems based on at least two criteria, such as geography or number of cash registers. However, the current peer group system has led to a lot of confusion and concerns for retailers. Congress should authorize USDA to conduct a study that examines the cost containment model and peer grouping system to identify best practices and if there is a better alternative to the current model, especially as WIC begins to transition to online purchasing.
Finally, independent community grocers’ ability to access the online space with a level playing field is critical to the future of federal nutrition programs. As Congress considers the future of WIC and online shopping, we feel strongly that Congress should take lessons learned from the SNAP online purchasing pilot program to provide a seamless process for modernizing WIC throughout the transition to online purchasing. Independent community grocers must also be granted a level playing field as their big-box competitors in the WIC online space. Requiring independent grocers to cover delivery fees is a concern, especially for the smallest of retailers hoping to offer WIC online purchasing, as additional costs on retailers would have a harmful effect on their ability to participate.
The priorities outlined above are critical in moving the WIC program forward. As the Biden-Harris administration focuses on increasing participation levels in WIC, it is more important than ever to ensure the program operates as smoothly and as efficiently as possible from a retailer’s perspective. Less red tape would lead to more independent grocers being able to offer WIC, with the ultimate goal of providing greater access for families in need.