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Some 13 state agencies operating Women, Infants and Children (WIC) benefit programs have implemented electronic benefits transfer (EBT) initiatives to improve the efficiency of funds distribution. However, many unknowns remain concerning the impact EBT processes have on the various stakeholders, including the agencies, their EBT card issuers and transaction processors, and WIC participants, including food merchants.

A new study report from the Altarum Institute helps fill those gaps, helping WIC state agencies transitioning to EBT over the next few years make informed decisions when planning and implementing their programs. The report includes key findings and recommendations for effective programs.

The Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2010 requires WIC state agencies to change their method of conducting food-purchasing transactions by implementing card-based EBT systems. These can either be offline smart card-based systems or ones supported by online-authorized mag-stripe cards.

Deadline approaches

All state WIC agencies must implement EBT by Oct. 1, 2020. Over the past decade, 11 such agencies have fully developed and implemented EBT systems, with the majority of other states now being in various stages of planning, development or implementation.

For its research, Altarum primarily used WIC program EBT food purchase-redemption data provided by the Kentucky, Michigan, and Nevada WIC programs. It obtained participant characteristics, benefit-issuance, and benefit-redemption data for all participants receiving WIC food benefits between Jan.1 and March 31, 2012.

What the research found is that EBT is a successful method for issuing WIC benefits, and it’s one preferred by vendors and participants over paper-based food-instrument options that don’t identify purchasing trends and patterns in participant food redemptions. However, even as states pursue transitioning to EBT, they face an arduous task given the complexity of the prescriptive nature of the nutritious WIC foods, the report notes.

Distribution limits

Because WIC only allows the purchase of certain types and quantities of specific nutritious foods and formula, states and their vendors must develop systems to limit the use of WIC benefits for only those foods prescribed to a participant and authorized by the WIC program.

“As such, every EBT card is ‘loaded’ with specific types and quantities of 14 different categories of WIC foods that can be purchased,” the report notes. “In addition, WIC prescriptions for women and children include a cash value benefit for purchasing only fruits and vegetables, which allows participants to redeem the dollar amount prescribed instead of a specified size and quantity of food.”

Moreover, when EBT is implemented, each vendor makes equipment updates based on its existing cash-register system, its individual store or corporate chain infrastructure capacity, and it selects the WIC EBT device best suited for the store. “Most stores already had EBT transaction experience from Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) transactions and were familiar with the technology,” the report notes. “Some vendors reported experiencing initial WIC EBT implementation challenges, primarily due to a lack of consistency between their store products and the [authorized product list] as well as missing UPCs (universal product codes).”

Product identification

Vendors in the three study states noted that keeping UPCs updated is particularly difficult, especially for products with frequently changing package sizes or prices, Altarum found. “However, many vendors reported a positive implementation experience, generally describing the process in their state as ‘streamlined,’ ‘seamless’ or a ‘smooth transition,’” it said in its report.

States also must establish and maintain information regarding authorized foods WIC participants can purchase and provide that information to vendors on a routine basis. Besides the technical challenges of prescriptive food benefits, states independently develop their benefit-delivery systems, whereas other public programs have a single system in place managed at the federal level. As a result, WIC state agencies have multiple options for implementing EBT, the report notes.

Within the three states whose data Altarum analyzed, 95% of WIC families either partially or fully redeemed their WIC food benefits during the study period, with 13 percent fully redeemed and 82 percent partially. Compared with non-Hispanic White families, Asian families were nearly twice as likely to have redeemed all of their benefits, while non-Hispanic Black families were 41 percent less likely to do so, according to the report.

Card-acceptance issues

As for acceptance of EBT cards, WIC vendors operate both integrated point-of-sale devices and countertop devices to complete WIC transactions. “The integrated POS systems allow for ‘mixed basket’ presentation of foods in the lane (e.g., allowing participants to place both WIC and non-WIC food items on the checkout lane belt), and a more streamlined cash-value benefit transaction in situations of split tender,” the report notes.

At the time of the study, self-checkout lanes were allowed for WIC purchases in Kentucky and Michigan. WIC participants who used the lanes reported doing so because they are quick and more convenient, the report notes.

WIC families make an average of just more than three shopping trips per month to use their EBT benefits, with a range of one to 25 trips monthly. “Focus-group participants said they tend to spread their WIC shopping over the month, purchase the WIC foods when needed, and incorporate their WIC shopping into their regular grocery shopping,” the report states.

In terms of location, WIC families shopped at 1.8 vendors in an average month, ranging from a minimum of one vendor to a maximum of 11 vendors.

Key recommendations

In its report, Altarum recommended that states, when feasible to do so, encourage transitioning from countertop terminals to integrated devices among vendors. It also suggested that states ensure easy access to WIC EBT benefit balance information and expand methods by which participants can access their benefit balances.

Moreover, the report calls for developing and evaluating efforts to increase benefit redemptions, especially as it affects redemption among underserved populations, and to plan early for use of EBT redemption data in program management.

Altarum conducted its study with funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service as part of the Food Assistance and Nutrition Research Programs and in partnership with the WIC state agencies in Kentucky, Michigan, and Nevada.

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