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Why a viral tweet asks people not to buy foods with 'WIC' on the label

Recipients of government assistance programs have even fewer options at the grocery store. Here's how everyday shoppers can help.
Shopping at grocery stores during the coronavirus outbreak is even more challenging for those on government assistance programs like WIC.
Shopping at grocery stores during the coronavirus outbreak is even more challenging for those on government assistance programs like WIC.Getty Images

As U.S. cases of the coronavirus rise, a recent viral tweet is encouraging anxious grocery shoppers to consider leaving items on the shelves if they display the label "WIC" on the price tag.

The tweet by Suit Up Maine, a grassroots political organizing group, pointed out that participants in WIC — a government nutritional assistance program for women, infants and children (WIC) — can only buy certain food items with their benefits.

“People who use WIC to feed their kids can't switch to another brand or kind of food. If a store runs out of WIC-approved options, they will go home empty-handed,” the group said.

In a follow-up message, Suit Up Maine pointed out that most national grocery store chains have a system for labeling WIC-approved items, though the colors, size and font may be different from the image in their tweet.

By Thursday afternoon, four days after it was posted, the message had received about 26,000 retweets, 37,000 likes and more than 300 comments.

It struck a chord among celebrities, too. On Monday, actress Kerry Washington shared the image and advised her followers to choose products without the WIC label.

"We’re all in this together," she wrote.

Later, singer Janelle Monáe tweeted Washington's post, adding, "I was a WIC baby. PLEASE read labels."

The WIC program serves low-income, nutritionally at-risk pregnant women; new moms for up to six months or a year postpartum; infants up to their first birthday; and children up to their fifth birthday, according to the Department of Agriculture.

Through checks and vouchers, it helps participants afford crucial products like infant formula, cereal, baby food, vegetables, meats, whole wheat breads, brown rice and more.

According to government data from 2016, almost 14 million people in the U.S. qualify for WIC benefits, and roughly 7.6 million of them receive it. About 53% of infants born in the U.S. are WIC recipients, and the program is available in all 50 states.

Because the program is state-run, what WIC participants are allowed to buy with their benefits varies based on where they live.

During a pandemic, states can apply for a waiver that allows recipients to purchase another brand when WIC-approved items are sold out, according to the Department of Agriculture. (Suit Up Maine says it is working with state legislators to request such a waiver.)

The group's effort was the latest in a series of moves by grocery stores and other retailers to keep shelves stocked for elderly and other vulnerable shoppers.

Among them, Whole Foods and Target said this week their stores would designate special shopping hours for seniors and at-risk customers.