Just for women and children

Are stores that cater only to voucher recipients a good idea, or too expensive?

On the corner of Dix Street and Minnesota Avenue, tucked away between a Pizza Hut and a McDonald's is a friendly little shop: "Healthy Foods for Families." It's the size of a small convenience store, the floors are spanking clean, the shelves are crowded, snapshots of customers are pasted to the side of the cash register, and the cheery posters on the wall feature celery sticks and exhort anyone paying attention to eat five portions of fruits and vegetables a day.

"They know what I need here, so I don't get confused and flustered," says April Bullock, mother of three toddlers, as she darts in to grab baby formula and cereal. "This works fine for me."

"This" is a WIC-only store, where vouchers, not money, serve as currency; where only food approved by the $1 billion federal nutrition program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) is to be found; and where - controversially - prices are higher than at any supermarket on the block.

Are these WIC-only stores, popping up as they are around the country in recent years, a positive addition to low-income neighborhoods - or are they cash cows sucking away funds from a federal program and hurting the communities they are purporting to help?

Every month, some 7.7 million low-income women and children get help buying healthy food - beans, eggs, cheese, milk, cereal, peanut butter, and more - by using WIC coupons, which are funded by the federal government and administered by the states.

Each voucher includes a maximum price a store can charge for an item. These maximums are set high so that women in rural areas where shopping might be more expensive can get the food they need. In June, for example, the maximum allowed for a gallon of milk was $4.51, for two dozen eggs, $7.19.

At supermarkets and grocery stores, where these vouchers are redeemable, those with vouchers are charged the same amount for an item as any other customer - about $3.80 for a gallon of milk and $2.60 for 24 eggs. At the privately owned WIC-only stores - which are often conveniently located in strip malls near the clinics or centers where the vouchers are handed out - prices are higher: sometimes 20 to 30 cents higher, sometimes $2 to $3 more.

Barbara White, co-owner of Healthy Foods for Families, can't remember exactly how much a gallon of milk costs at her store. It's not marked, but rather "in the computer," she explains. (She thinks that it is "somewhere around $4 and a bit.")

But, Ms. White stresses, the main point is that this type of store gives its customers "one-on-one" personal attention and help: Those who can't read are assisted, those who don't understand what products they are eligible for are given explanations, and those who are embarrassed about what the other customers might think are reassured.

Indeed, WIC voucher holders, pleased with the ease and comfort of the WIC-only stores and tired of voucher problems that can arise at larger supermarkets, are increasingly shopping at the smaller, friendlier stores - and don't notice, or care, about the prices, which are paid by the government.

"I have been on both sides of the track," says Tracy, a WIC-only store manager in Virginia, who asked that her last name not be used. "I used to be a WIC recipient, and I remember that humiliation when you get to the supermarket cashier and they say, 'Wrong item, wrong item,' and make you feel bad, like you are holding everyone up and don't have money," she says, adding that those criticizing the WIC-only stores "should try going to a supermarket with a food voucher themselves before arguing."

Nonetheless, an increasing number of critics are arguing that these stores are in fact hurting the WIC program, not benefitting it. In California, where there are more than 600 WIC-only stores, a study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington found that WIC-only stores charging higher prices added $33 million to the cost of the program in that state, reducing the overall efficiency.

Congress seems to be waking up to the problem. In July a bill was passed requiring the stores to bring their prices in line with other supermarkets within 18 months and to stop offering promotions to lure in new customers. And last month, the Department of Agriculture, which runs the WIC program, wrote to each state's health commissioner, saying that funding might be jeopardized if more is not done to curtail excessive pricing.

In response, WIC-only store owners - who spent some $400,000 on lobbyists to press their case on Capitol Hill - say they do not understand how they can bring down prices and stay in business, when they are competing with chains that buy in bulk.

"If we are forced to cut our prices," says Mike Amiri, whose family owns 30 WIC-only stores in California, "we will be operating at a loss and will have to close, which would be our loss - but also a loss to the communities we serve."

Of course he makes some profit, he says, but argues that the campaign against the stores is all about profit anyway - and not about the needs of the poor. Of the $82 million a month spent on WIC food in California, says Mr. Amiri, about 43 percent is spent in WIC-only stores.

"That's a lot for the supermarkets to lose," he says, adding that it is the lobbying efforts of the large chains that is driving the campaign. "You think they care about the voucher holders?"

Meanwhile, as different interests battle over the problem, most of the WIC recipients themselves remain outside the debate. "I have no idea who is looking out for our interests," says Ms. Bullock with a shrug as she revs up her car. "I'm just here for the baby formula."

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