Ohio currently has roughly 157,000 WIC participants.
New research is making the case for an online system to better serve young families who depend on the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC).
Ohio is among just 10 states requiring WIC recipients to mail or present their EBT card at a WIC office every four months to reload benefits.
Hope Lane-Gavin, health equity fellow at the Center for Community Solutions, said Ohio had a tremendous health and human service response to the pandemic, but during the same period, states with offline systems saw a significant decrease in WIC enrollment.
"If you're on WIC, you're either pregnant, postpartum, and you have a toddler or a newborn," Lane-Gavin explained. "And so, you have to load everybody into a car or take the bus just to get the benefit itself, and then you have to go shopping. So that is a whole ordeal and that is reflected in our enrollment numbers."
Data showed WIC participation was 9% lower in offline states relative to online states. Ohio was one of the first states to use EBT cards. And while the decision occurred years ago, Lane-Gavin contended the pandemic exposed it actually runs counter to the program's intentions and goals.
Lane-Gavin pointed out an online EBT program could improve infant mortality rates and maternal health. She used Medicaid as an example, where beneficiaries are inherently eligible for WIC.
"There's about 115,000 births in the state every year, and roughly 50% of those births are on Medicaid," Lane-Gavin noted. "So, hypothetically, if all of those people got on the WIC program and the benefits were remote, it would make a huge difference in infant and maternal health in the state and the takeup of the program. "
The American Rescue Plan Act included WIC modernization funding, so Lane-Gavin emphasized researchers encouraged state officials to use those dollars to bring the system online.
"Families are hurting," Lane-Gavin observed. "And as we face this inevitable COVID-19 cliff where a lot of these programs that were created because of the pandemic are starting to wind down, we know that families still need help."
The Center for Community Solutions has an online series examining ways to improve the WIC program.