The Things You Don’t Think About When You Can Afford To Feed Yourself

Lo these 20 years ago, when I was in high school, I worked as a cashier in a grocery store (it was the stone age, when scanners were just coming into wide use; I had to ring things up by hand).

One of the things I had to learn was how to ring up customers who used WIC checks to pay (I lived in an affluent suburb and we didn’t get too many of those, but we had some). There were only certain items that were covered by the WIC checks; I definitely remember that milk, juice, baby formula and certain other rather limited items were covered by the checks. But since I left the grocery business in 1988 or so, I haven’t really thought about WIC checks in any kind of detail — after all, I haven’t needed them.

So I was a little surprised to realize that they hadn’t, until now, covered fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

WASHINGTON – The grocery shopping list for the far-reaching Women, Infants and Children program is getting its first significant update since the 1970s. Fruits, vegetables and whole grains are being added to the program, which helps feed more than half the babies born in the U.S. To cover the cost, WIC will pay for less of the juice, eggs, cheese and milk that have been staples of the program.

The changes to the low-income nutrition program were proposed Friday and will be finalized next year. Anti-hunger groups are enthusiastic about the additions.

“Overall, we’re really happy about this food package. We think, for WIC clients, this is going to make a huge difference,” said Geri Henchy, director of early childhood nutrition at the Food Research and Action Center.

“We like the idea that there are choices, that clients go to the grocery store and can pick the fruits and vegetables they want,” she said.

One thing you hear people sniffing about when they see poor fat people is, well, why don’t they eat more fruits and vegetables? Well, aside from the fact that they’re often not available in the shops in the neighborhoods where the poor fat people live, they have not been covered by programs like this.

Kudos for the change. Anything that will help get better nutrition into the hands of those who struggle to make ends meet is a step in the right direction.

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38 comments for “The Things You Don’t Think About When You Can Afford To Feed Yourself

  1. jm
    August 8, 2006 at 1:02 pm

    i had a friend who started using WIC recently, and the quality of her food actually worsened while she was on it–when she was pregnant and nursing. she wasn’t able to buy anything organic, as she had before, and she got a lot more crappy “cheesefood” type stuff. instead of supplementing her so she could afford the cost of organic milk, it limited her to buying only non-organic milk. she was grateful for WIC, but it the whole thing was sad. the main positive point of the program was that she was allowed to buy things at the local farmers market. she ended up selling some of her WIC money to friends so she could use the cash to buy organic products. i understand that they don’t want to subsidize “luxury” items, but it’s sad that we consider fresh and/or organic food for babies and pregnant women luxuries, especially since these groups are so much more sensitive to pesticides and other toxins. early-life nutrition is SO important; it seems like it’d be more cost effective to provide better nutrition, than to pay for shitty food and then diabetes or breast cancer treatment later on.

  2. August 8, 2006 at 1:24 pm

    Random shannon remembers being shocked that WIC in GA didn’t cover calcium fortified orange juice.(I found this out by looking at the card at the check out line) anyway, I wonder how they’ll inform the mothers about this so they know they can get healthier food.

  3. August 8, 2006 at 1:45 pm

    The WIC program prior to these changes is one of many examples of how it is cheap to eat unhealthy food and expensive to eat healthy– something that definitely harms the poor. Even outside of WIC, fresh fruits and vegetables are more expensive than snack foods, milk, and natural juices are more expensive than sugary soft drinks, obviously organic food and food without toxins is far more expensive than mass-produced food, and fattening fast food such as junior bacon cheeseburgers can be had for 99 cents while salads cost $4.

    If we actually cared about obesity, we’d use the tax and regulatory systems to do more about this rather than just demonizing overweight people.

  4. August 8, 2006 at 1:49 pm

    I’ve worked as a cashier in a grocery store in a low-income neighborhood, AND I’ve shopped with friends who were paying with WIC, and there isn’t much that you can buy with the government vouchers. For example, for some damn reason, you can’t buy juice that’s a mixture of the juices of two different types of fruit–so you can’t get apple cranberry juice or anything. If a lot of your diet is actually coming from WIC, then the foundation of your family’s diet is basically milk and cheese, since those are the main items you can buy–although much smaller quantities of reasonably healthy items like dry legumes are permitted.

    Lactose intolerance is pretty common among non-white people, and milk and cheese are full of cholesterol, saturated fat and all kinds of other horrible shit, so it just isn’t a great way for anybody to be eating, which is why I’m glad they’ve finally allowed fresh vegetables.

    Produce is cheap, too–much cheaper than a block of cheese. I agree with JM in that it seems pretty obvious that feeding people well would be cheaper in the long run that subsidizing the healthcare of people who, due to poor diet, are suffering from a number of illnesses and chronic conditions.

    Why does the government want poor people to subsist off of egg and cheddar cheese sandwiches?

  5. August 8, 2006 at 2:06 pm

    I did a spit take reading that…


  6. Kat
    August 8, 2006 at 2:14 pm

    I was on WIC for a period of time and had many friends in the military system who were on it as well. When you go to get your WIC checks, they give you a flyer with pictures explaining what is approved food and what isn’t. With the first few checks I went around the store with my pamphlet in hand, trying really hard not to let anyone see me with my WIC paraphernalia. I was not ashamed to be using/needing WIC. You do what you have to for your kids. But it was personal and I hated that everyone was privy to it.

    The type and amount of food you receive is based on the ages and numbers of qualifying clients in your household. My son at the time was 1, and I had just stopped nursing so he was the qualifying client. My other son was too old (6) and I was no longer nursing and not pregnant. If I remember correctly, as a one year old, I was able to get him milk, cereal (regular, not infant), cheese and eggs. I could not get peanut butter because my son was under three.

    Friends who had formula-fed infants were able to get formula, but the brand and type was very specific. I had a friend who had a child with very serious dietary issues who could not tolerate regular formula and needed a very specific substitute per doctors orders, and they could not budge on helping her with this formula despite the fact that it was a medical issue, not a luxury.

    Another friend had a breastfed baby, so the food was for her as the nursing mother but it was limited to tuna, milk, carrots and cheese, maybe peanut butter. She said she never wanted to see another carrot or eat anymore can of tuna as long as she lived! The variety was really poor at the time and could sort of wear you down.

    I used to have neighbors come over to me when I lived in military housing, that had too much cheese or formula at the end of the month, and would give it away. They would always remark that they wished it was a bit more efficient, that they would give them less cheese and more veggies for instance.

    The type of food you can get and the quantities is printed right on the checks. When you get to the check out, you have to separate out the WIC items for the cashier to verify on the check. I would keep my fingers crossed that I would not get in line in front of an officer’s wife because they would always make some snide comment about how the line was held up knowing damn well I was up there cashing my WIC checks. I would also hope for a nice cashier, because a lot of them were pretty snotty about the extra work too.

    To this day if I see someone with their WIC stuff separated out, I make sure I get behind them and give them a smile. Save them from having some ninny behind them giving them crap.

    But, we needed the help at the time and so I sucked it up. I’m glad to see that they are improving the variety/quality of the food, that will help nutritionally and also make the walk-of-shame a little more bearable.

  7. August 8, 2006 at 2:44 pm

    Cheese is in but fruit isn’t? That just screams lobbying (as does the caveat that the cheese has to be “domestic”).

  8. Esme
    August 8, 2006 at 2:55 pm

    A girl I worked with was on WIC while she was still breastfeeding. She was limited in the employment she could take because she had to have a job where she could pump at least once a day. I asked her why she didn’t do formula, since WIC covers that, and she explained to me that if she switched to formula, she could no longer afford food for herself because formula is so expensive.

  9. Casey
    August 8, 2006 at 3:06 pm

    I too used to work at a grocery store in high school, and we had quite a bit of WIC users. I’m pretty shocked that, y’know, basic healthy foods were never on there. I do remember a lot of cheese and milk and big cans of Juicy Juice.

    Where do all the fetus fetishists go once a baby is born to a poor mother? Shouldn’t they be rallying for this sort of thing, also?

  10. saoba
    August 8, 2006 at 3:32 pm

    Nearly thirty years ago I was a single mother of three. Since getting child support orders enforced was damn near impossible I applied for and qualified to receive food stamps.

    I would take the three kids (by bus) to the grocery. I had a list of what I needed to buy to feed them for the next 2-4 days, that being the limit I could carry by myself and still manage the kids. I knew, to the penny, how much I could spend.

    I would shop, check out and count my change. My food was bought with the change.

    One day a cashier sneered at me for being so ‘dis-organized’ I always came through the line twice. I lost it. I told him, at some length and with considerable volume, what my reason for coming through his line twice each trip was and ended up sobbing.

    In the utter silence that followed an older woman stepped forward and began putting items on the belt; fresh fruit, chicken, bakery bread, band aids, and shampoo. She looked at the man behind her.

    “What you got in there this child and her babies can’t afford? Thank your Maker and ante up. I’ll drive her home, don’t be shy about it bein’ too much. All of you, lookin’ down your noses at her, what you got she can’t afford? Try sparin’ a little somethin’ besides a nasty look.”

    I ended up taking home nearly two hundred dollars in food and sundry items. I cried all the way home, while she drove. My kids ate grapes out of the bag like they were candy. I tried to tell her thank you and she shook her head.

    “Just you promise me you won’t ever forget what that felt like, to have somone look nasty at you for bein’ poor. I kept that promise myself today. You keep it in your turn.”

    I think its time I wrote another round of letters to my elected officials, to remind them that being poor isn’t a character flaw.

  11. August 8, 2006 at 3:54 pm

    Saoba, that’s the best thing I’ve read all day. Thank you.

  12. piny
    August 8, 2006 at 4:12 pm

    I think its time I wrote another round of letters to my elected officials, to remind them that being poor isn’t a character flaw.

    What Ron said. I should volunteer for another shift at Project Open Hand.

  13. Christopher
    August 8, 2006 at 4:34 pm

    Wow… that seems really inneficient.

    It seems like it would be easier to just give people some kind of stipend to buy whatever food items they needed, but I guess we can’t risk people using their own judgemnt.

  14. August 8, 2006 at 4:42 pm

    Juice makers said the juice reductions are much too severe. Allowing more juice would help ensure kids are getting the vitamin C they need and discourage kids from drinking soda or other sweetened drinks, said Jim Callahan, spokesman for Welch’s.

    Welch’s grape juice may be a good source of vitamin C, but it’s still got 40 grams of sugar per serving. That’s a lot. What a jerk.

  15. piny
    August 8, 2006 at 4:50 pm

    Welch’s grape juice may be a good source of vitamin C, but it’s still got 40 grams of sugar per serving. That’s a lot. What a jerk.

    Whoa. Is that no sugar added?

  16. August 8, 2006 at 4:54 pm

    That’s what the label says on the website. Grapes are Nature’s candy, as Marge Simpson said. Quite literally. And in juice you get no benefits of fiber like you would from actual fruit, either.

  17. piny
    August 8, 2006 at 4:59 pm

    That’s what the label says on the website. Grapes are Nature’s candy, as Marge Simpson said. Quite literally. And in juice you get no benefits of fiber like you would from actual fruit, either.

    Right, that’s what I remembered about Welch’s, but I wasn’t aware of the high sugar content. It’s better than soda, but far worse than produce. My family was a nature’s candy family–and I’m a nature’s candy adult–but I avoid most juices for this reason. (OJ, cranberry, and grapefruit juice being the major exceptions.)

  18. Kat
    August 8, 2006 at 5:01 pm

    My pediatrician told me to limit the juice intake of my son to 4 oz a day or less, anything after that was empty calories. Juice lacked things like fiber that you could get from fresh fruit better. The comment about the big cans of Juicy Juice made me laugh, because when we were on WIC we were stocked to the gills with damn Juicy Juice. But the way the checks work, they list the food items you can get. If the check says “1 half gallon milk, 1 dozen eggs, 1 can juice” then its all or nothing. And you probably need milk, so you get it all and stock pile it. Its not at all efficient. Formula was the same way, it was meant to provide 80% of the formula for the infant, although infants start to use less formula and more solid food as they grow older but the checks didn’t always adjust for this so sometimes you end up with way too much formula trying to make sure you were getting your cheese ration. So for awhile you are strugglign to make up the difference and then you end up with more than you can reasonably use.

    Its all based on who can get the contracts. Sometimes Similac wins the bid, sometimes Enfamil does. You are told which specific brand names are acceptable and which are not. For example, you may be able to get Post Raisin Bran but not Kellogg’s Raisin Bran (and really what’s the difference?) and maybe Seneca Apple Juice is okay but not Motts. That never struck me as having anything to do with nutritional value but all about making sure some big company’s bottom line was in good health.

  19. piny
    August 8, 2006 at 5:07 pm

    Its all based on who can get the contracts. Sometimes Similac wins the bid, sometimes Enfamil does. You are told which specific brand names are acceptable and which are not. For example, you may be able to get Post Raisin Bran but not Kellogg’s Raisin Bran (and really what’s the difference?) and maybe Seneca Apple Juice is okay but not Motts. That never struck me as having anything to do with nutritional value but all about making sure some big company’s bottom line was in good health.

    Yup. Limits like this reeked of corporate arrangements. I mean, the sensible thing would be to allow people to shop for whatever bargains they could find, right? That is, if you were trying to stretch resources rather than direct profits.

  20. Daphine
    August 8, 2006 at 5:49 pm

    Hopefully, some will take the time to send their comments?

    Comments can be sent, before November 6, 2006, to:

    1. Mail: Send comments to Patricia N. Daniels, Director, Supplemental Food Programs Division, Food and Nutrition Service, USDA, 3101 Park Center Drive, Room 528, Alexandria, Virginia 22302.
    2. E-mail: Send comments to Include “Docket ID Number 0584-AD77, WIC Food Packages Rule,” in the subject line of the message. It would be helpful to also include in your message your organization and your city/state.
    3. Federal eRulemaking Portal: Go to Follow the online instructions for submitting comments.

  21. car
    August 8, 2006 at 6:40 pm

    That made me cry.

    I teach a college class on food and culture, and one of the projects at the end is to look at the food pyramid and everything else the USDA puts out on what optimal nutrition should be, and then compare it to what that same governmental body actually allows per individual for people on food stamp assistance, including the fabulous guide to eating complete with meal plans and recipes. It would be a hoot, if it weren’t so horrid. One entry for “vegetarian”, and it’s a baked potato smothered in processed American cheese product. Half a cup of milk and half a cup of orange juice with a meal. Not to mention that almost all the recipes call for huge amounts of cold storage and prep time. They also read an essay by Jeffrey Steingarten (a food critic) on trying to live by the USDA’s recommendations to the people on food assistance. My students come out of it shocked and with a lot more understanding how difficult it is to eat well when poor (except for the ones who are already intimately familiar with the program, who sit there stone-faced until they see that I show their side of it).

  22. Esme
    August 8, 2006 at 8:26 pm

    That’d make a great episode of 30 Days. Trying to raise a family on food stamps and WIC

  23. car
    August 8, 2006 at 8:28 pm

    Argh. That makes me mad again. One of the first 30 days was Morgan and his girlfriend trying to live on minimum wage, and they kept complaining about how difficult it was to buy food, and how just one nice dinner at a medium-quality restaurant broke their budget, and NEVER ONCE in the whole episode did he make the connection that THAT’S WHY the crappy fast food that made him famous is so damned popular – an extra value meal with a bonus trip to the playland is awfully enticing when you can’t afford anything else.

  24. mg_65
    August 8, 2006 at 8:45 pm

    Saoba, that was beautiful.

  25. August 8, 2006 at 9:02 pm

    Thank you, Saoba, for a good cry.

    Here’s another one for you. Ethan was an underweight preemie so I had to have him on a high-calorie formula. The WIC vouchers I got specified the type of formula that I had to feed him (with a note from the doc) and even though I repeatedly asked, it never changed. E was on the same formula until he was one and I weaned him, mostly because I couldn’t afford it without the voucher, but at that point he was actually overweight for his average length thanks to the hi-cal formula.

    Other than that, all we got was cheese food product, milk, baby cereal, and Juicy Juice.

  26. Kat
    August 8, 2006 at 9:18 pm

    Not to mention that almost all the recipes call for huge amounts of cold storage and prep time.

    I volunteered at a charity designed to help with urgent financial needs of military folks, like food pantry, funeral expenses, emergency travel. The intake processed consisted of the clients coming in and completing a budget to assess where they may be having budgetary problems and could solve their long term issues. The system would have been a good one, except that the volunteer caseworkers were usually from the more priveleged families on base. The group meetings I attended were horrendous and often disintegrated into gossip sessions about the clients. This one volunteer started a rant about clients were all guilty of spending too much on groceries, for things like processed food and such. She said “if they would just learn to bake their own bread, they would be fine”. I raised my hand and said, “oh, are you going to be giving bread-making classes? and while we’re at it lets teach canning and preserving too, and make sure they all have rides to the Farmer’s Market to get their single-ingredient foods”. None of these women, with the balanced checkbooks, brand new SUVs and household help (nannies, housekeepers) even considered the logistics of what they were suggesting. I mean some of our clients didn’t even have OVENS.

    You know, when your budget is going to fall apart because you buy a 99 cent loaf of Wonder Bread, there is a lot more going on than a lack of desire to put forth some effort.

  27. August 9, 2006 at 2:25 pm

    talk about your scary lobbyist involvement… from the same article:

    The new list would increase the amount of canned fish to 30 ounces and add canned salmon as an option. The president of the U.S. Tuna Foundation, Anne Forristall Luke, applauded the plan.

    “Canned tuna is a convenient, affordable and nutritious food we all grew up on and is unrivaled in its nutritional benefits,” she said.

    that would be the same canned tuna that is contaminated with mercury and should be avoided by women and children, yes?

  28. dharmadyke
    August 9, 2006 at 2:57 pm

    Being poor in the United States (and elsewhere) has always been seen as a moral issue. This is a deeply Protestant country that equates poverty with immorality. “There but for the grace of God go I,” is NOT in the equation.

    When I was a little dharmadyke, my mother, brother and I were on foodstamps, and the nasty comments from cashiers and other customers were endless. I also remember her figuring out what we could get versus what we couldn’t get.

    I loved the woman in Saoba’s story, I’ll try to be her more.

    yrs, a dharmadyke

  29. Angel
    August 9, 2006 at 9:18 pm

    I was on WIC, and they say “no cheese food,” it must be real cheese. I’ve done it pregnant, nursing, with an infant and with children. To this day, I will not eat Chex or King Vitamin as cereal.

    I did food stamps too, because working 3 jobs between 2 people paid for a roof, utilities and fuel for one vehicle. And yeah, there were some nasty looks from the ladies in line because I was invading their neighborhood. I would stop on my way home from work and began making a point of wearing my work apron and nametag when I shopped so it would be obvious I was employed and not “lazy.”

    I lost 30 lbs in 4 months, but my kids had enough to eat.

  30. Gina
    August 9, 2006 at 9:22 pm

    It’s been a few years since my son was old enough to be on WIC, but from what I remember, they give way more milk than any reasonable human being could ever drink. I was forever giving it away to my sister in law so it wouldn’t go bad. Replacing some of that milk with fruits and veggies is a great idea.

    On another note, buying cereal on WIC is a total nightmare. They give you a total number of ounces you can get and a list of what you can buy, but I dare you to find any combination that allows you to get even close to the full amount of ounces you’re entitled to. I know I always found it fun to have to whip out a pamphlet and spend 20 minutes performing complex mathematical calculations in order to make sure I get enough cereal to feed my kid for the month.

  31. Spider
    August 9, 2006 at 10:01 pm

    Interestingly enough, WIC in Pennsylvania — at least six years ago when I was on it — offers vouchers for Farmer’s Markets during the summer months. You get a certain number of vouchers for $5 apiece that can be spent at a certain list of local vendors — all of which are farmer’s markets owned locally — and they can only be spent on vegetables and fruits native to PA.

    These things were a GODSEND to me, because I was pregnant during the summer, and so for the months leading up to my son’s birth, I was able to eat fresh vegetables all the time in a way that I absolutely wouldn’t have been able to afford on my own at the time. What was cheapest? Squash and zucchini, which I developed a taste for as a result, and which I learned to prepare in so many ways as to be ridiculous.

    I always thought that program was absolutely brilliant. Poor women and children get fresh vegetables, and local farmers got the money instead of big corporations. It was the best sort of welfare.

  32. Spider
    August 9, 2006 at 10:14 pm

    Oh, and when we were on foodstamps, I used to go through the self-check, and I got to be fast enough that I could stop the automated lady before she said ‘ENTER YOUR EBT PIN NUMBER AND THEN PRESS ENTER.’ She’d get to ENTER YOUR and I’d cut her off, so no one knew I was using anything other than a normal debit card.

    I got GOOD at that.

  33. krissy
    August 9, 2006 at 10:47 pm

    I worked at a grocery store for 7 months.

    I *Hated* having to tell a mother with her obivously hungry child that she couldn’t buy this because it wasn’t covered by the WIC check. Or that she couldn’t buy the food because the WIC check had expired.

    I also remember being very ashamed in middle school because even with both of my parents working and my mother in school to get a better job, we still had to use food stamps. The paper ones, where you had to have the exact amount, because they wouldn’t give you change.

    I realize now, that my mother was doing the best she could for us. But when you start talking about Food Stamps and WIC in your health class, and everyone turns to look at you, because they *know* you’re on foodstamps, it’s the worst feeling in the world for a kid.

  34. Jain
    August 10, 2006 at 2:40 am

    I’m enormously glad that the WIC program is expanding its food choices. I do, however, wish that something could be done to restrict the foods that people are allowed to buy with food stamps. I work as a cashier, and about half of my customers who use food stamps buy a sensible selection of foods. The other half, though, buy soda, chips, cookies, etc. in terrifying quantities.

    I’ve seen customers buy over $100 worth of junk food using their food stamps. I’ve seen others buy a comparable amount of meat; I’ve rung up entire orders consisting of nothing but $100 worth of steak and pot roast.

    Customers with children are definitely among the best shoppers. Most of them still buy a lot of soda, but they also select a reasonably balanced variety of grains, fruits and vegetables, meat, and dairy. Young, presumably single men, on the other hand, seem to rarely shop well, with older single men doing nearly as badly.

    I still think the food stamp program is an extremely valuable one, and God forbid that anyone should see my criticism as a desire to make it even more difficult for poor people to feed themselves. But I do think that soda and candy, at the least, ought not to be covered by food stamps. If an item has no nutritional value whatsoever, then it shouldn’t be considered food for the purposes of the food stamp program.

  35. Rhiannon
    August 10, 2006 at 12:13 pm


    I would disagree with you, but only because I remember when my father was on foodstamps and how we rarely got treats at all… instead of buying them (cause we didn’t have the money and my dad didn’t think we *could* use foodstamps for junk), my brother and I would steal them… and I got VERY good at it… my brother started stealing first… but then realized that I, as a girl, often carried around a rather large purse… and so he started getting me to steal and I kept stealing cause I got away with it, I got to have sweets when I wanted them. My brother went on to start stealing things other than candy, like baseball cards (I even helped if he agreed to give me the bubblegum)… he was really into collecting them… then one day he got caught and my dad threw all of his collection out… that got the message through to my brother… but not to me. I kept stealing cause I didn’t get caught… until one of the stores I usually stole from (a little mom and pop store) had to close down… I blamed myself and felt guilty (yay me) cause until then I had never really thought I was hurting anyone by stealing a bag of m&m’s here and there…

    I think if we’d been allowed a few sweets when we were young and poor (or if my father had known we were allowed to buy sweets… actually I’m not certain we were allowed back then, but it’s hard to remember) my brother and I would not have resorted to theft.

  36. Kat
    August 10, 2006 at 12:51 pm

    I dare you to find any combination that allows you to get even close to the full amount of ounces you’re entitled to.

    Yes! This was one mathematical equation that had no solvable answer! I stood there with my pamphlets for quite some time trying to figure it out, but there was no way to maximize your ounces especially if you threw in the requirement that the cereal you got was something your kid would actually eat (although this made me feel guilty because I was trying to be thankful for any free food and not be too picky).

    I think the folks who worked out this method for buying cereal on WIC were the same ones who came up with packaging hot dogs and hot dog buns in different quantities.

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