How Do I Start a Wic Business?

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WIC, which stands for Women, Infants and Children, is a federal grant program that makes nutritious food and health services available to those in need. Nearly 9 million Americans receive WIC benefits each month, including 53% of all infants.

If you own a store that sells food or baby formula, you may be able to apply for a WIC vendor's license. WIC's a federal program, but each state manages it, so the requirements can vary considerably. About 47,000 authorized retailers sell WIC food to clients already, but in many states, you can still apply to add your business to the list.

TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)

To enroll your business in the WIC program, contact your state's department of health or a regional WIC vendor-management office.

Your Business and WIC

While state regulations may vary, the only way to get involved with WIC in 2020 is to have a retail store or pharmacy that sells nutritious food. Your store has to be already open before you can apply in most cases. Services, such as nutritional education and counseling, are done by WIC clinics, not the private sector.

WIC clients pay for their food with WIC checks or, in a growing number of states, with WIC debit cards. The WIC program must approve the foods you sell. You can't, for example, substitute any baby formula when selling it to WIC clients. WIC foods include:

  • Infant formula
  • Baby food
  • Cereal
  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Whole wheat bread, brown rice, soft corn and whole wheat tortillas
  • Juice, milk and soy beverage
  • Eggs and cheese
  • Peanut butter, dried beans and peas
  • Meat, canned fish and tofu

If you have an alternative business idea, such as a mobile food service that could operate in a rural area, you can contact your state's department of health to present the idea. If you are a nutritionist or other health professional, you may be able to apply for Mother's Nutritional Center jobs.

Starting a WIC Business From Scratch

In almost all cases, you can't apply to become a WIC vendor unless you already have a business that sells food. So, if you have only recently decided this is a service you want to provide to your community, you have some work to do first. Find a location for your store, apply for a business license, and fulfill all the state and local requirements for selling fresh food to customers.

Next, set up accounts with food wholesalers to stock the shelves with fruits and vegetables, meat products, milk and other foods. Prepare for the necessary refrigeration, proper food handling and visits from local health inspectors.

In some states, you cannot apply for the WIC program unless you are already authorized as a SNAP retailer. SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) is a federal program offered by the USDA. To apply, go to the USDA Food and Nutrition Service website and complete the application form.

The WIC Program: Your Customers

The WIC program serves women, children and infants who are both low-income and nutritionally at risk. Specifically, this includes pregnant and breastfeeding women for up to one year after the child's birth and up to six months after the child's birth if the mother is not breastfeeding. Children are eligible until the age of five.

Income eligibility is based on the U.S. poverty line. A family of four, for example, must have an income of $47,638 or less in 2019, which is the poverty line multiplied by 185%. If a family or expectant mother is on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Medicaid or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, they are automatically eligible for WIC. Nutritional risk is determined by a health professional, such as a family doctor, nurse or nutritionist.

Applying to Become a WIC Vendor

To enroll your business in the WIC program as a vendor, apply to your state's department of health. Each state can open and close the application process at any time, depending on whether they have a sufficient number of stores to serve the population. The requirements for applications vary by each state. There are no fees to apply.

In Florida, for example, applications for 2020 to 2023 are only being accepted until March 31, 2020, and only for the South Florida region. You must own a retail store offering products on the approved WIC list, and your store must be in business for at least a year before you apply. With your application, you submit your price list for WIC products, and you are approved only if your prices are competitive with others in your region.

In Rhode Island, you need a SNAP License before you can apply to be a WIC vendor, as well as a food-protection license issued by the Rhode Island Department of Health. In the states of New York and Washington, WIC applications are handled by regional vendor-management agencies, and only grocery stores and pharmacies can apply. Training is provided after your application is approved.

Roles and Expectations of WIC Vendors

Vendors play a crucial role in ensuring WIC customers get the healthy foods they need. With this comes responsibility. You and your staff must be trained in identifying WIC-approved foods and correctly handling WIC transactions. In many states, at least one of your staff must attend WIC training and then train any other staff who interact with WIC customers. Additional requirements can include:

  • Maintaining minimum WIC inventory 
  • Identifying expired WIC foods
  • Implementing best practices for pricing 
  • Posting WIC signage or making brochures available as required
  • Completing self-assessment questionnaires or price surveys when required
  • Being available for WIC inspection

In Washington State, for example, you are required to submit price surveys twice a year. Additionally, in most states, it is your responsibility to reapply for WIC approval before your license expires.

If you fail to fulfill the responsibilities dictated by the WIC program, not only do you risk losing your license, but you may be subjected to financial penalties. In Oregon, for example, fines can range from $100 to $1,600, depending on the offense and the number of times your business committed it.

Interacting With WIC Customers

Your staff must treat WIC customers with the same respect and kindness all your customers deserve. If WIC receives complaints for disrespectful service or for inappropriate behavior from your staff, you and your staff could be fined, and your business could be removed from the WIC program.

In some states, your staff is required to ask WIC customers for identification before processing a purchase, but in other states, this is forbidden. WIC checks often specify what they can be used for, such as 1% or low-fat milk. Allowing the customer to substitute another item is not allowed and, if you are out of stock, you must give the customer a rain check rather than substituting another product.

References

About the Author

A published author, David Weedmark has advised businesses on technology, media and marketing for more than 20 years and used to teach computer science at Algonquin College. He is currently the owner of Mad Hat Labs, a web design and media consultancy business. David has written hundreds of articles for newspapers, magazines and websites including American Express, Samsung, Re/Max and the New York Times' About.com.