What Is the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Nutrition Program?

The federal government has legislated a variety of financial assistance programs over the years, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) was first authorized by Section 17 of the Child Nutrition Act of 1966. However, it only began in 1974 after a two-year pilot program. It funnels federal grants to the states that are used to provide food, healthcare referrals, and nutritional education to low-income pregnant and postpartum women, breastfeeding women, and nutritionally at-risk infants and children up to age 5.

WIC is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The program had about 344,00 participants in 1975 and grew rapidly. WIC now serves about half the infants born in the U.S. However, enrollment has declined in recent years, both in caseloads and share of eligible families served. Modernization is needed to make the program more accessible to eligible families and to make participation possible for mothers who return to work.

The USDA also runs nutrition programs for older children from low-income families. These include federally assisted free or low-cost breakfast and lunch programs in schools and residential child care facilities. 

Key Takeaways

  • WIC has provided food, food vouchers, and nutritional support and education for pregnant women and mothers of infants since 1974.
  • WIC now serves about half the infants born in the U.S.
  • Numerous studies have found that recipients of WIC have healthier infants, better diets, and better child immunization rates.
  • WIC is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which also runs school lunch and breakfast programs.

Benefits of Good Nutrition

Four decades of research have found that pregnant women who participate in WIC give birth to healthier babies who are more likely to survive infancy. WIC mothers have better infant feeding practices and diet. They buy and eat more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products. Children of participating mothers were immunized at higher rates. They had better mental development at two years of age and performed better on reading assessments later on. 

Typical Benefits Provided by WIC

WIC mothers receive free food items, much of it farm surplus, including beans, cereal, cheese, eggs, infant formula, juice, milk, and peanut butter. They also receive vouchers to buy WIC-approved fruits and vegetables from farmers’ markets. Services provided include breastfeeding eduction and support, nutrition education and counseling, and referrals to other health, welfare, and social services. 

Applying for WIC

Automatic enrollment

Eligible participants in the following programs may be automatically enrolled in WIC.

  • Medicaid 
  • The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as “food stamps”
  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF, formerly known as AFDC, Aid to Families with Dependent Children)

Eligibility requirements

Applicants do not have to be on another assistance program to receive WIC benefits. To be eligible, the person must be one of the following:

  • Pregnant
  • Postpartum (up to six months after the end of the pregnancy)
  • Breastfeeding (up to infant’s first birthday)

Income eligibility is between 100% and 185% of the federal poverty income guidelines, and it varies among the states. Applicants must be seen by a health professional, who will determine whether the individual is at nutritional risk. In many cases this is done in the WIC clinic at no cost to the applicant. 

Apply in your home state

A list of state WIC program offices, phone numbers, and websites is available from USDA. Applications may also be available at county health departments, hospitals, schools, mobile clinics, community centers, migrant health centers and camps, and Indian health services facilities.

What Is WIC?

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) give federal funds intended to be used to buy food and pay for healthcare referrals and nutritional education for low-income women who are pregnant, postpartum, or breastfeeding, as well as nutritionally at-risk infants and children up to age 5.

Who Administers WIC?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is in charge of the program, but money is handed out by the individual states according to their own eligibility rules. About half of all U.S. infants are enrolled in WIC.

What Are the Benefits of Participating in WIC?

Research shows that women who participate in the program have healthier babies with higher infancy survival rates. Mothers have better diets and infant feeding practices. Children have greater mental development by age 2, stronger reading skills later in life, and higher rates of immunization.