For years, the government has been helping our family buy groceries. As a military spouse who has lived at four different bases in the last nine years, I have difficulty finding full-time employment. Thankfully, this little-known benefit helps us put food on our table.
Since the birth of our first child, the government has bought most of our milk, bread, eggs, juice, and cereal. Every week, I bring Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) vouchers to the grocery store and ring up specific WIC items separately from the rest of my food. The store takes the WIC voucher as payment for my groceries. Our military family relies on this benefit to afford healthy food.
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How WIC Works
WIC is a government subsidy program that aims to provide healthy groceries for low-income families with children up to age 5. Pregnant or breastfeeding women can receive vouchers for healthy food like fresh produce, skim milk, eggs, wheat bread, beans, and cereal. WIC vouchers for infants can be used for formula and baby food. Children ages 1-5 will receive vouchers for fresh fruits and vegetables, milk, eggs, cheese, bread, peanut butter, tuna fish, juice, and cereal.
WIC defines low-income families as households making less than 185% of the poverty level. For a household of three people, that would mean an annual income of less than $37,167 (as of 2017; see eligibility guidelines for current income limits). Additional family members will raise the eligibility number, even if the additional children are too old to personally qualify for WIC benefits.
Our family of six qualifies for WIC because we make less than $60,255 yearly, but we only receive vouchers for our youngest child. WIC is a separate program from Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), but any family that qualifies for SNAP benefits will automatically qualify for WIC as well.
WIC – Also Available to Military Families Stationed OCONUS
WIC is available in the continental US, as well as OCONUS, through the WIC Overseas Program. Members must apply through the WIC Overseas office, where a WIC Overseas counselor will review your eligibility and approve your enrollment.
WIC Overseas Program is available to eligible participants living overseas, including:
- Civilian employees
- Department of Defense contractors
- Family members
- Members of the uniformed services
Those who may be eligible for the WIC Overseas Program include:
- Expectant mothers during pregnancy and throughout the first six weeks after giving birth*
- Mothers until the infant is six months old if bottle-feeding or one-year-old if breastfeeding
- Infants and children until the end of the month in which they turn age five
*After six weeks, mothers must contact a WIC Overseas counselor and reapply under either the bottle-feeding or breastfeeding category.
How to use the WIC Overseas Program:
Your counselor will give you an approved food list and redeemable food checks called “drafts,” which can be exchanged for specific foods and quantities in overseas commissaries and NEXMARTs (drafts are accepted only at these overseas stores). There are no allowed substitutions, so hang on to your draft until the items are back in stock. Keep in mind your drafts may have expiration dates, so try to redeem them before they expire.
You can learn more on the TRICARE website.
How WIC Benefits Military Families
Many military families with children qualify for WIC benefits because the military base pay is so low. Additional pay like Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) and Overseas Cost of Living Allowance (COLA) are not counted when applying for WIC benefits.
WIC legislation and regulations also provide State agencies the option to exclude certain housing payments and other allowances provided to military personnel in determining WIC eligibility. Here is a list of items excluded from WIC calculations:
- Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH)
- Family Separation Housing (FSH)
- Overseas Housing Allowances (OHA)
- Overseas Continental U.S. (OCONUS) Cost-of-Living Allowances (COLA)
Even after the pay raise in 2017, most enlisted families at rank E-6 and below with one child will qualify for WIC. Because the WIC qualifications are calculated based on household size, families with more children could qualify for WIC even as an E-8 with 18 years of military service. After the 2017 pay raise, officer families with one child will not qualify for WIC, but they might if they have more than one child.
Because WIC vouchers are specific to each state, you must apply for them in the state where you currently live. The vouchers will be valid at most grocery stores in that state, including military base Commissaries. If your family receives orders to move to another state, you must re-apply at your new base. WIC is also available in Commissaries overseas, and the qualification requirements are calculated differently at overseas locations, including Hawaii and Alaska. So even if you didn’t qualify for WIC benefits before, it is worthwhile to reapply when moving overseas or OCONUS.
How WIC Benefited Our Family
For our family, the savings provided through the WIC program have been incredible. I currently only have one child receiving vouchers. Each voucher lists specific items, like 1 dozen large eggs, 16 oz. whole wheat bread, or $8 fresh produce. I save an average of $20 per week, or 7% of my family’s weekly grocery bill.
When my other children were younger, I received vouchers for all of them simultaneously. A breastfeeding mother gets additional vouchers, too. During one deployment, I used WIC vouchers for myself and all three children. The savings on all those healthy food items was around 50% of our weekly grocery budget. Using WIC meant that we could spend less than $100 on food per week for a mom and three children.
WIC has meant more than saving money on groceries for our family. It has also helped shape our habits and our meal plans. For years, I received an abundance of canned tuna fish and canned beans from the WIC program. So I learned to cook with those items more frequently. They are great, affordable sources of protein.
After a few years, those habits have stuck with me. Even though I no longer receive vouchers for beans, I find myself still buying beans at the store and incorporating them into our family meals.
My children have learned a lot from WIC, too. Because WIC vouchers are only valid for specific items and brands, my kids are used to picking items off the shelves that have a WIC sticker. This has been especially helpful in the cereal aisle. We never buy sugary types, because they are too expensive. To my children, Cheerios, Mini-Wheats, Chex, and Kix are some of the only valid types of cereal. That’s what they eat every morning for breakfast.
When I tell my kids to “go grab milk and bread,” I know they will come back with skim milk and whole wheat bread because that’s what they have been accustomed to. Thanks to WIC, our family has healthy habits that will stay with us for life.
Other Benefits of WIC
Finally, I must point out that WIC benefits military families with more than just food vouchers. Their screening programs help pregnant women detect anemia or unusual weight problems. In fact, when I was pregnant, the WIC doctors noticed my low iron levels before my OB-GYN. Regular check-ups for children also check height, weight, and iron levels. A nutritionist is available during appointments to discuss habits and portion sizes, or provide recipes for WIC items.
The WIC website has tons of helpful videos and resources to teach you how to cook and eat healthily. So if your military family does not yet benefit from the WIC program, look for a WIC office near you (they are located near most military bases) and see if you qualify!