A new WAAY 31 I-Team investigation shows you how Alabama is upgrading the way it pays out benefits from one particular food assistance program.
Across the state, more than a hundred-thousand people participate in the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program.
To be clear, WIC is different from SNAP, formerly known as the food program.
Instead, we’re talking about WIC which pays for a relatively short list of specific foods based on their nutritional value.
Alabama is a few weeks away from a new e-WIC card. It’s expected to streamline what has been an inefficient process.
With baby twins and a toddler in tow, Shaza Robinson has her hands full. We caught up with Shaza loading the baby stroller.
Kingston's up front.
Ka'liyah’s riding in back. And big brother Kegan is helping push.
The single mom depends on the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program, known simply as WIC.
"We use it for the kids,” she told WAAY 31. “They give you Similac. And also when they get a little older, they provide the cereal and the first and second stage baby foods. And also for my 2-year-old, they provide like 2 percent milk for them and yogurt."
Robinson is thankful for WIC. At grocery store checkouts, though, using WIC means making other shoppers wait.
"It's just kind of embarrassing to go to the store and have to use the vouchers because you know everybody's behind you and you're holding up the line," Robinson told us. "It would be so much easier if we could just swipe and go on about our day."
A federal mandate is about to give Robinson what she wants.
"We're changing to e-WIC which is an electronic benefit transfer system," Jessie Simmons told WAAY 31. She’s the Northern District nutrition director for Alabama's Department of Public Health.
She points out the WIC point-of-purchase system is old school: eligible items each spelled out on individual paper checks or vouchers.
"Instead of paper vouchers, we will have e-WIC cards which are like debit cards that will have a PIN number," Simmons explained.
Personal Identification Numbers entered at the cash register will cut down on fraud. Plus, the state says e-WIC cards are completely secure for users with no link to personal banking information. The e-WIC cards won’t even have names on them -- just 16 digit WIC account numbers.
"They won't have to separate their WIC foods from their non-WIC foods,” Simmons said. “It'll be a lot faster -- just the swipe of a card versus having to sign each voucher for each transaction."
The old vouchers have been vexing. In our state, about 117-thousand people use WIC. Besides kids, WIC is intended to help pregnant, new and nursing moms.
WIC promotes specific nutritious foods. Just a few: infant formula, milk, cheese, cereal, fruits, veggies, juice, yogurt and eggs.
The new e-WIC cards will sort it all out electronically.
“It will be great for us,” Lynn Gann with Star Market told WAAY 31.
Grocery stores are eager for the new system.
“We’re hoping it will mean our customer service will be a lot better and go a lot smoother and faster with us not having to check the WIC checks out and every single item on the check,” Gann explained.
She’s also happy checkout clerks can stop being WIC cops. Soon, a data base will look for product bar codes and make all the judgement calls.
“It will be just scan it and go,” Gann said. “We will be working with WIC to make sure we have everything in the database for them.
e-WIC families with more than one child will see all benefits loaded onto a single card instead of doled out to individuals item by item.
"And they could choose to get just one gallon of milk or just one container of juice or five dollars of fruits,” Simmons said, “instead of having to use exactly what's on the voucher. It'll be more user-friendly. "
Shaza Robinson can't wait to get her family's new e-WIC card, an improvement on a program she already appreciates.
"It's a great program and it really helps me a lot being a single parent and the support from them to be able to make sure that we have what they need."
Beginning in the fall, a three-month pilot program begins in Autauga, Elmore and Montgomery counties.
The e-WIC card will be available statewide next year.
The electronic cards will also help the state track the foods families buy to fine-tune nutritional offerings.