By Lizann Lightfoot
Ever since I had my first child eight years ago, my family has been receiving government assistance to buy groceries. I haven’t paid for a gallon of milk in years. Our family of six receives over $100 monthly to buy healthy foods like wheat bread, low fat milk, beans, fresh fruits, and vegetables. Like many military families, my family receives the money through the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) vouchers.
What is WIC?
This government program is intended to get healthy nourishment to new mothers and young children who might not otherwise be able to afford it. Applicants must be below 185 percent of the national poverty level. WIC is separate from SNAP, known colloquially as food stamps. (A family that qualifies for SNAP will automatically qualify for WIC too.)
WIC vouchers can be used at commissaries or major grocery stores for specific foods. Pregnant women receive vouchers for iron-rich food like beans and canned tuna fish. Nursing mothers receive vouchers for calcium-rich milk and cheese as well as fresh produce. If new mothers choose not to nurse, they receive formula vouchers. A child receives vouchers until age five for cereal, wheat bread, brown rice, peanut butter, juice, eggs, milk, and fresh produce.
Benefits of WIC for military families
Thanks to WIC, we save $20-30 on groceries each week, or about 20% of our weekly grocery bill. We use the weekly savings to buy leaner cuts of meat, fresher produce, and healthier snacks. In the long term, this will help to reduce our risk for obesity and heart disease and lower our medical and insurance bills, so it’s hard to measure the money ultimately saved with WIC.
Regular WIC appointments check the weight and iron levels of family members. When I was pregnant, the WIC staff was the first to notice my low iron. The nutritionist encouraged me to eat more iron-rich food and to follow up with my OB-GYN.
WIC vouchers are for specific foods, so our family has grown used to cooking our own meals at home, with lots of fresh fruits and veggies, beans, and whole grains. Keeping healthy foods in the pantry and using WIC recipes has been beneficial to our family’s eating habits. Some of our go-to weekday meals are even nutritionist-approved.
In grocery stores, WIC items are indicated with stickers. My children are used to choosing WIC cereal and juice. They know the WIC choices are low-sugar options like Cheerios or Rice Krispies and they don’t even ask for the sugary ones. Recently, I asked my eight-year-old to grab any loaf of bread. She came back with the WIC-approved brand of whole wheat bread. My daughter recognizes whole wheat bread as “the normal kind” now.
Why do military families need WIC?
There are WIC offices on most military bases, including those overseas, because many military families fall within the low-income target. For a family of three, that’s a household income less than $37, 296 per year. Most single income parents from enlisted ranks 1-7 and the first officer rank will qualify for WIC. That’s why even after 15 years of military service and multiple meritorious promotions, my Marine’s income still puts our family of six within the WIC poverty qualification.
Military families qualify for federal poverty assistance because it is calculated on the service member’s Basic Pay. Yes, it’s true that military benefits include additional payments for housing and food (BAH and BAS) that are not part of Basic Pay. It’s also true that many military families are limited to one income. The presence of WIC on military bases is a helpful service, but it indicates a deeper problem in military life.
Military spouses are often unemployed, because of frequent moves, deployments, and licensing challenges in different states. Spouse unemployment rate is 26 percent, three times the national average. Military spouses who find jobs make much less than average. A 2014 survey found that 90 percent of female military spouses are underemployed. Even though most military spouses want or need to work, options are not available at every duty station and employers hesitate to hire military families who move frequently. This leaves military families disadvantaged, living on forced low incomes, and in need of supplementary help.
Lizann Lightfoot is the Seasoned Spouse, a military wife of 9 years who has been with her husband since before Boot Camp—15 years ago! Together they have been through 6 different deployments and 4 different duty stations (including 1 overseas in Spain). Lizann spends her days at home wrangling their 4 young children, cooking somewhat healthy meals, writing about military life, and wondering where the family will end up next. She is the author of the book ‘Welcome to Rota,’ and of the Seasoned Spouse blog. Follow her on Twitter. Find military encouragement on her Facebook page. Find inspiration for care packages, deployments, and more on her Pinterest page.