On one of my last grocery store trips, I cried over a container of yogurt. I shop with two kids. It takes me about an hour to select the things I need, to check things off my list, to add up my purchases, and to make sure that I haven’t gone over budget. If I do go over, you will see me put things back. So it makes sense that I cried over the yogurt. Because I am a mom who uses WIC.
The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children — WIC for short — provides food assistance to low-income pregnant and breastfeeding women, and to children under the age of five. It provides things like formula, whole grain foods, cereals, fruit juices, fresh produce, peanut butter, milk, eggs, and of course, yogurt.
For us, WIC was a necessity when we thought our dairy and soy allergic baby was going to be switched to hypoallergenic formula. I was breastfeeding, but we were having a difficult time pinpointing her allergies, and her reactions were getting worse. So our doctor suggested the specialty formula and told us that if we qualified, WIC would pay for it. The cheapest of these hypoallergenic formulas cost $40 per can, so WIC seemed like a great option. In the end, we didn’t need the formula, but WIC was still a helpful program. It gave us a little flexibility in our grocery budget while I was off of work, so we stuck with it.
But here’s something I’d like for you to know. Receiving WIC is work. I fill out paperwork, take online classes, and sit in a crowded office for an hour or two. I beg my kids not to crawl on the dirty floor while they wait with me. I fill out forms asking if I have electricity or if I am afraid of anyone in my home. I am asked a series of questions about what my kids eat and if I need help with meal ideas. The staff is kind and eager to help, but it’s a long process.
Shopping for WIC is work. Yes, the items are free to me. But I have to check every single label. Is this the right kind? No added honey? No added seasonings? Does this have the right number of ounces? There are some items that we are not given guidelines for other than to “look for the WIC sticker beside the item in the store.” And can I tell you something? There are some stores, generally nicer grocery stores with good delis and excellent produce, that don’t have those stickers they are supposed to have on any of their items. I have talked to many a store manager about the lack of labels, and nothing has ever changed. To me, it feels like a “You are not welcome here.” And this is where I found myself on the day of the yogurt incident.
On that day, I finished my grocery shopping and went to the checkout. When it comes to using WIC benefits for yogurt, I have a list of brands, sizes, and flavors to choose from. I chose the same kind I get at every other store, fully expecting that it would be covered. But on that day, it wasn’t. I asked the cashier if she could tell me why. She couldn’t. So she called a manager, who tried to explain to me that I got the wrong kind, and I needed to go back and get a cheaper brand. I took out my WIC-issued list, and I showed the manager that I was indeed following the guidelines. She didn’t care.
On another day, I might have backed down. I might have paid for my purchases, including the yogurt that was meant to be free, and gone home. But on this day, I wanted an answer. I wanted to get to the bottom of it. The manager didn’t have an answer, and I told her I would gladly wait while she investigated. I stood in line for a few minutes while she gave me several different possible explanations for why, none of them based on facts. The man behind me seemed frustrated with me and yelled, “Can I just pay for your yogurt?” This did not feel like a kind, compassionate gesture. He seemed angry. This was a man who just wanted to get me out of his way so he could pay for his things and go home. And this is why I started to cry.
Because asking for answers should not be an invitation to be humiliated. It is a sensitive thing to receive help. It’s hard to admit that you qualify for the help. Could we survive financially without WIC? Yes. But while my husband is in school, it has allowed us some financial flexibility we wouldn’t have otherwise. Nobody’s getting rich, here. And while I am thankful for the program, I don’t like to have to announce it to the clerk at the register, which some stores actually require. I don’t like having to put an item on my grocery list back because, even though my grapes should be paid for, this particular store didn’t code them correctly. And I don’t like being made to feel ashamed because I wanted to claim something that the program clearly says I can have.
In the end, I just paid for the yogurt. I cried all the way out the door. I cried all the way home. I felt poor and sad and judged. The next time I was in this store, I found a different manager who was compassionate and helpful. And really, that’s what I wanted — to be treated with respect. I’d like to be able to check out and have no issues with redeeming my food benefits, but even if not, I’d like to keep my dignity.