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WIC Program’s Expanded Benefits Account for Up to 6,226 Calories a Month — Here’s How Much Recipients Could Lose if Benefits Expire

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An average of 6.2 million people participated monthly in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program (SNAP) for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) in fiscal year 2021.

Ahead of the start of fiscal year 2022 (Oct. 1, 2021), legislation was passed to expand the program designed to protect the health of consumers and children in low-income households who are at nutritional risk. Specifically, WIC benefits for fresh fruit and vegetables were temporarily expanded. This was essential as food prices continue to climb, with consumer spending jumping by 28% in just over a year, according to a LendingTree study on food spending.

Despite the increasingly high cost of food, the latest LendingTree study shows program recipients can buy more fresh produce than before. However, the benefit’s approaching expiration date at the end of September could mean recipients may lose a significant amount of their monthly calories.

Key findings

  • Under the WIC program’s temporarily increased fruit and vegetable benefits, the average cash voucher for a child is worth an estimated 14.6 pounds of produce, or 3,404 calories a month. Meanwhile, pregnant and postpartum women can purchase 26.6 pounds of produce on average (5,858 calories a month) and breastfeeding women can buy 28.6 pounds of produce (6,226 calories).
  • Despite current inflation, the WIC program’s increased benefits allow recipients to buy more fresh produce. The average cash voucher for a child is worth 7.2 more pounds of produce a month than before the produce benefits were first expanded on Oct. 1, 2021. Pregnant and postpartum women can purchase 17.2 more pounds of produce a month, and breastfeeding women can buy 19.2 more pounds a month.
  • WIC program recipients could lose a significant amount of calories if the benefits increase expires. The expansion is set to expire on Oct. 1. Returning to pre-expansion voucher amounts would impact women the most: Breastfeeding women could lose 74.3% of their monthly produce calories, while pregnant and postpartum women could lose 72.7%. Meanwhile, children could lose just over half (51.4%) of their monthly produce calories.
  • The retail value of WIC food packages jumped by at least 15% over the past year. When adjusted for inflation, the retail value of a WIC package — milk, eggs, bread and more — for a child increased from $48 to $55, or 15.2%. For women, food packages increased by 15.3% to 16.5%, depending on the package.

 

How we determined the non-cash value of WIC fruit and vegetable vouchers

The WIC produce benefits are distributed as cash-value vouchers. To determine the amount of produce WIC benefits consumers could buy before and after the benefits expansion, LendingTree researchers selected a range of fruits and vegetables based on consumer popularity. Specifically, researchers looked at the following:

  • Fruits: Avocados, bananas, apples, oranges, strawberries and grapes
  • Vegetables: Spinach, broccoli, carrots, corn, peppers, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, onions, potatoes, lettuce and celery

Using data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), LendingTree researchers analyzed the caloric content of these fruits and vegetables. Researchers then used weekly retail pricing data from the USDA to calculate their average prices during the week ending July 29, 2022, and the equivalent week in 2021.

Finally, researchers determined the amount of produce WIC program recipients could purchase if they bought at least one unit of each fruit and vegetable analyzed, then determined the caloric value of the produce each WIC package could buy. Units were calculated in pounds unless otherwise noted.

How much produce can WIC program participants buy under the expanded benefits?

To promote healthy eating habits and nutritional security during the pandemic, the federal government temporarily increased the WIC cash-voucher benefits reserved for fruit and vegetable purchases among all package types. The benefits increase, which was first enacted on Oct. 1, 2021, increased the value of cash vouchers allotted for fruits and vegetables to:

  • $24 a month for child participants
  • $43 a month for pregnant and postpartum participants
  • $47 a month for fully and partially breastfeeding participants

Under these increased fruit and vegetable benefits, breastfeeding women can purchase 28.6 pounds, on average, of produce a month. In terms of nutritional value, that accounts for 6,226 calories. Pregnant and postpartum women, meanwhile, can purchase 26.6 pounds of produce a month, accounting for nearly 5,858 calories. Meanwhile, the average cash voucher for a child is worth 14.6 pounds of produce, accounting for 3,404 calories a month. 

As a reminder, these figures above assume recipients purchase certain popular produce items. We chose a wide range of fruits and vegetables to provide specific examples.

Here’s a breakdown of what recipients could afford based on the fruits and vegetables we selected:

Amount of produce each WIC voucher could buy per month (as of July 2022)

Child cash voucher ($24)Pregnant and postpartum cash voucher ($43)Fully and partially breastfeeding cash voucher ($47)
Item/price per itemUnits affordedUnits afforded Units afforded
Avocados ($1.41 each)122
Bananas (51 cents/pound)222
Fuji apples ($1.60/pound)122
Oranges ($1.49/pound)122
Strawberries ($2.57/pound)122
Spinach ($3.67 for 10 ounces)111
Broccoli ($1.39/pound)122
Carrots (90 cents/pound)122
Corn on the cob (52 cents each)122
Bell peppers ($2.97/pound)111
Sweet potatoes (99 cents/pound)122
Tomatoes ($1.55/pound)122
Yellow onions ($1.18/pound)122
Russet potatoes ($1.17/pound)122
Iceberg lettuce ($1.43 each)122
Celery hearts ($2.29/pound)N/A12
Red grapes ($2.34/pound)N/AN/A1
Total cost$23.86$42.35$46.98
Total calories3,4045,8586,226
Total pounds of produce14.626.628.6

Source: LendingTree analysis of USDA data. Weekly retail pricing data is based on average prices during the week ending July 29, 2022.

Cost of food is rising, but cash vouchers are still worth more than before

Before the benefits increase, children received $9 a month, and all women (regardless of whether they were pregnant, postpartum or breastfeeding) received $11 a month.

That means vouchers are worth significantly more. And while inflation has pushed food prices up, WIC program’s current benefits allow recipients to buy more fresh produce than before. Take a look at the amount of produce recipients could buy before the benefits were expanded:

Amount of produce each WIC voucher could buy per month (as of July 2021)

Child cash voucher ($9)Pregnant, postpartum and breastfeeding cash voucher ($11)
Item/price per itemUnits affordedUnits afforded
Bananas (47 cents/pound)11
Fuji apples ($1.44/pound)11
Oranges ($1.64/pound)11
Broccoli ($1.40/pound)11
Carrots (82 cents/pound)11
Corn on the cob (46 cents each)11
Tomatoes ($1.53/pound)11
Yellow onions (72 cents/pound)N/A1
Russet potatoes (90 cents/pound)12
Total cost$8.93$10.55
Total calories1,7362,264
Total pounds of food7.49.4

Source: LendingTree analysis of USDA data. Weekly retail pricing data is based on average prices during the week ending July 30, 2021.

Female WIC participants could purchase just 9.4 pounds of produce a month in July 2021. For breastfeeding women, the expansion benefits allow them to afford 19.2 pounds more than before — representing nearly 4,000 additional calories. Meanwhile, pregnant and postpartum women could afford 17.2 pounds more than they could in the same time frame, adding nearly 3,600 calories of produce to their diets.

Regarding cash vouchers for a child, the amount of produce WIC recipients could purchase jumped from 7.4 pounds a month in July 2021 to 14.6 pounds a month in July 2022. That’s almost double (7.2 pounds more) the amount of produce. Nutritionally, cash vouchers for a child are worth nearly 1,700 more calories each month.

Amid impending benefits expiration, recipients could lose at least half of their monthly produce calories

Since it was first enacted, the deadline for the temporary increase in benefits has been extended another two times. It was originally due to expire on Dec. 31, 2021, a deadline extended earlier that month. Then in March 2022, it was extended through the end of fiscal year 2022. However, no moves have been made to extend the deadline again. With the increase due to expire on Oct. 1, returning to pre-expansion benefit amounts could significantly impact on WIC recipients.

That’s particularly true of women. Returning to 2021 pre-expansion benefit amounts would cut more than 4,600 calories a month for breastfeeding women — reducing their monthly produce calories by 74.3%. For pregnant and postpartum women, who could lose nearly 4,300 monthly produce calories, their monthly calories would drop by 72.7.%. Meanwhile, children would lose just over half (51.4%) of their monthly produce calories.

Monthly produce calories each WIC participant could lose when WIC benefits expire

2022 WIC voucher valueMonthly calories per child participant Monthly calories per pregnant and postpartum participantMonthly calories per breastfeeding participant
Voucher value with expanded benefits3,4045,8586,226
Voucher value without expanded benefits1,6561,6001,600
Change in value-1,748-4,258-4,626
% change-51.4%-72.7%-74.3%

Source: LendingTree analysis of USDA data.

According to LendingTree chief credit analyst Matt Schulz, that loss in calories could impact the health of WIC participants.

“If the WIC benefits expire, millions of women and children would have less access to fruits and vegetables,” he says. “That’s troubling because while healthy eating is always important, it’s never more than during a pregnancy or in early childhood.”

Retail value of WIC packages has jumped by at least 15% since 2021

Regardless of whether the federal government extends the additional fruit and vegetable benefits again, there is some good news: The overall retail value of WIC packages has risen. Because inflation has caused the cost of goods to increase, WIC participants are getting more value from the specific food items — not the cash-value vouchers they receive for fruits and vegetables — included in their packages.

Beyond the cash-value vouchers participants receive for fruits and vegetables, WIC food packages designate a specific amount of juice, milk, breakfast cereal, cheese, eggs, bread, canned fish and legumes and/or peanut butter each month. When adjusted for inflation, the retail value of these packages has jumped by at least 15%, depending on the package type.

Child packages, for example, have increased from $47.99 to $55.27 — a 15.2% increase. Here’s a breakdown:

Total retail value of a child WIC package in 2021 vs. 2022

Food typePackage allotment per monthRetail value 2021Retail value 2022
Juice128 fluid ounces$20.80$23.12
Milk16 quarts$11.88$14.48
Breakfast cereal36 ounces$8.78$9.58
CheeseN/AN/AN/A
Eggs1 dozen97 cents$1.99
Whole wheat bread2 pounds$4.14$4.46
Canned fishN/AN/AN/A
Legumes and/or peanut butter1 pound or 18 ounces$1.42$1.64
Total retail value$47.99$55.27

Source: LendingTree analysis of USDA data. Current prices are from the USDA and Target.

For women, meanwhile, the value of food packages has increased anywhere from 15.3% for fully breastfeeding participants to 16.5% for postpartum participants.

Food and inflation: Expert tips to manage rising costs

With the deadline for another WIC benefit expansion approaching, it’s difficult to predict what will happen. While the deadline has been extended before, Schulz cautions that there’s no guarantee it’ll happen again. For participants who’re worried about losing their expanded benefits, particularly as food costs continue to climb, Schulz recommends having a backup plan.

“The good news is that there are other options, depending on your circumstances,” he says. “Your local food bank can be of great service, as can other community organizations focused on serving the nutritional needs of the community. Religious groups may be a good option as well. Ultimately, it’s important to do some digging and find out what programs may be available to you.”

On a federal level, parents may find additional assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP). Programs for children from low income households include the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and the School Breakfast Program (SBP). While those programs are only available during the school year, programs like the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) can offer additional support through the summer.

Although exploring other program options is a good start, sometimes taking on debt to pay for groceries is inevitable. In fact, a recent LendingTree survey on inflation and credit cards found that nearly two-thirds of Americans say they’ve been turning to credit cards to make ends meet. In those situations, using a credit card offering grocery rewards can help earn some cash back or help offset your monthly grocery bill. It may not be ideal, but those savings could add up in the long run — particularly when your options are limited.

Methodology

Using data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), LendingTree researchers analyzed the caloric content of popular fruits and vegetables. Researchers then used weekly retail pricing data from the USDA to calculate their average prices during the week ending July 29, 2022, and the equivalent week in 2021.

Researchers then determined the amount of produce WIC recipients could purchase if they bought at least one unit of each fruit and vegetable analyzed, then determined the caloric value of the produce each WIC package could afford. Units were calculated in pounds unless otherwise noted.

Finally, LendingTree researchers determined the cost of items in a standard WIC package using USDA weekly retail data. Current prices for cereal and tuna were pulled from Target, and previous prices were calculated by subtracting year-over-year inflation.

Correction: On Sept. 23, we corrected the percentage of monthly produce calories that breastfeeding and pregnant and postpartum women could lose.

 

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