“WIC Works” is a slogan used in the federal subsidized Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, a.k.a. WIC. And WIC does indeed work for many. Recently, however, in Inyo County the only remaining rural community grocery market left offering WIC outside of the City of Bishop, Carroll’s Market in Big Pine, has announced that it is no longer accepting WIC vouchers.
According to Toiyabe WIC Director Irene Mason, the loss of the market in Big Pine is going to affect around 50 of her program’s participants. It will affect participants in the Inyo County WIC Program as well, although it is uncertain to what extent at this time. In any event, many of those that bought food under the WIC program at Carroll’s Market will have to find the time, transportation, and the added expense of gasoline to travel to Bishop to shop for food.
Market owner, Dean Rossi said, “We have held out as long as we could, but the WIC program is simply too difficult to administer. We don’t like losing the business, but neither can we afford to continue losing money having it.”
Rossi cited the problem of returned WIC vouchers that are treated just like any returned check, except that he is charged a $9 fee by WIC and also another $6 returned check fee from his bank. Whatever profit he might have made quickly disappears. Many of the purchases are for small amounts, which only adds to the problem.
“Make one simple mistake, be one penny off” he said, “or mistakenly allow a WIC client to use a voucher with the wrong date, and my store loses money. We already operate on a small margin as do most grocery stores.”
Adding to the problem of returned checks, Rossi said, it is also difficult to train new cashiers to sort out what is or is not acceptable under WIC guidelines. Then there is also the time that he spends himself just sorting out the paperwork for reimbursement and an appeal process for returned vouchers that not only takes even more of his time, but according to Rossi, he often does not even get a response.
Unlike the “Food Stamp Program” (now known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP), WIC only allows customers to buy authorized, healthy, nutritious food.” The WIC guidelines are very strict and are made up of several different standards for products like breakfast cereal, milk, vegetables, peanut butter and other foods.
Most of Inyo County falls under what is described as a “food desert,” a place where Americans in low-income rural areas must travel at least 10 miles to the nearest supermarket. With the loss of Carroll’s Market in Big Pine, that “desert footprint” has increased by another 30 miles for the participants in communities to the south outside of Bishop. For WIC clients in Lone Pine the roundtrip to Bishop is 120 miles or 150 miles to Ridgecrest. Bishop has only three grocery stores that accept WIC vouchers: Vons, Smart and Final, and J&M Market, while Ridgecrest has four grocery stores which include two Albertsons, one Stater Bros., and one small neighborhood market.
Small rural grocers find it difficult to be profitable for a variety of reasons, such as low sales volumes which make it difficult to purchase large volumes of perishable foods. They must also deal with wholesale food supplier’s minimum purchasing requirements. Fraud by some WIC clients and participating stores gouging WIC clients is also a significant problem and has resulted in a moratorium on new stores being approved for WIC vouchers.
During the lunch break at the local public school, Rossi observed many local students using their SNAP cards to purchase junk food.
“Kids buying all this junk food is not a good thing,” said Rossi, “but at least we don’t have to deal with all the problems presented by the WIC Program’s requirements. I truly support the WIC program’s goals and it is a wonderful program that serves a worthy purpose, but until they find a way to make the program work better, as a small grocer, I simply cannot continue with the program as a vendor.”