Expert Interview

Leveraging WIC EBT Data for In-Depth Program Analysis

April 4, 2024

Since its founding 50 years ago, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) has been a critically needed source of food and health support for many low-income, nutritionally at-risk pregnant women, new mothers, infants, and young children. In addition to providing healthy food, WIC, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service (USDA FNS), also offers nutrition education, breastfeeding promotion and support, and health care referrals through state agencies awarded federal grants.

Like many public service programs, however, WIC policies and practices have undergone significant changes. Between 2003 and 2010, food packages were revised, more grains were added to diets, vendor practices were altered, and electronic benefit transfer (EBT) began to replace paper checks. These changes, along with an audit by the USDA Office of the Inspector General prompted FNS to look at the food cost-containment practices in WIC to learn of their effectiveness. The WIC Food Cost Containment Study, completed by Insight Policy Research (acquired by Westat in 2022), provides these data. Two experts now in Westat’s Social Policy and Economics Research practice—Stacy Gleason, MPH, an Associate Vice President, and Kathy Wroblewska, MPP, a Senior Associate—conducted the research. Here they discuss their findings, other WIC studies, and Westat’s expertise in WIC policy and WIC vendor management practices.

Q. What was the goal of the WIC Food Cost Containment Study?

A. Kathy Wroblewska: We were tasked with identifying best practices for reducing food costs without adversely affecting program and participant outcomes. This involved examining 6 types of state agency food cost-containment practices, 29 food-specific restrictions, and the resulting impact on WIC participant satisfaction, benefit redemption, and food consumption at 12 state agencies.

Q. What research methods did you use?

A. Kathy Wroblewska: We used a mixed-method design, which included the following activities:

  • Collecting information from WIC food lists, state plans, and policy documents on cost-containment practices used in 70 states
  • Interviewing WIC directors in 70 states to validate abstracted data and understand the rationale for implementing certain measures
  • Surveying current WIC participants in 12 states plus former WIC participants in 3 states to obtain feedback on satisfaction with WIC foods, purchases, consumption, preferences, and access to vendors
  • Analyzing WIC EBT data to look at participants’ food selections and costs in 12 states

Q. What recommendations did you make based on your findings?

A. Stacy Gleason: We recommended that FNS share information about the most effective and widely used cost-containment practices that reduce WIC food costs, minimize negative effects on participants, and are not overly burdensome to administer. We also suggested FNS alert state agencies to practices that do not save money or are associated with reduced redemption, food consumption, and participant satisfaction.

A. Kathy Wroblewska: We also found that over 70% of household respondents said the shopping experience was relatively easy, but an equally large percentage said there were times when they selected the wrong item or found the WIC food was out of stock. This finding helped spur additional funding for WIC to improve the participant shopping experience.

Q. What challenges did this study present?

A. Stacy Gleason: It was the largest collection of WIC EBT data ever. We had to manage and process millions of EBT records across the 12 states. This process taught us a lot about state-specific nuances in the data, including opportunities to improve how we request and process these data in the future.

Q. What other WIC studies have you and your team conducted for FNS?

A. Stacy Gleason: We have about a dozen active WIC projects with USDA, and we’ve conducted many others over the past 20 years. We work with FNS on large administration data collections. For example, every 2 years since 2012, we have collected administrative data from all WIC state agencies to create a nationally descriptive data file on a complete census of WIC participants. The final report from the 2022 census was just published on FNS’s website. We are working with FNS on the 2024 census now. For this census, FNS has substantially expanded the scope of data collection. We will collect longitudinal administrative data, including EBT data, for a full 2 years rather than for a single month.

We also support FNS by applying innovative methods to examine critical policy-relevant issues. For example, for the WIC Eligibility Estimates Research series, we recently provided FNS with 2021 estimates of WIC eligibility by region, state and territory, race and ethnicity, and, for the first time since this study series began, urbanicity. Several years ago, we analyzed WIC food issuance and EBT data to help FNS uncover potential indicators of vendors at high risk of committing violations.

We have also conducted many studies for FNS that involve collecting data from nationally representative samples and a census of program administrators. For example, we are currently conducting a national longitudinal study of WIC participant experiences and health outcomes. As FNS has noted, this study is critical because it will help “tell the story of WIC.” We are also inventorying state and local breastfeeding policies and practices with a focus on identifying inequities in the availability of WIC breastfeeding support. For this study, we collected data from a census of WIC state and local agencies and abstracted data from state plans and policy manuals.

Q. What expertise does the Westat team bring to these and future WIC studies?

A. Stacy Gleason: We bring strong policy knowledge and years of experience analyzing WIC participant purchasing patterns, and interviewing and surveying WIC staff, vendors, and participants. We also bring an unwavering commitment to centering participants and staff in the work we do—they are the true experts, after all—and to identifying the best ways to give data back to the WIC community.


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