South and West Side WIC food benefit recipients face restrictions North Side families do not

The unusual and unfair way Chicago grants coupons for the Women, Infants, and Children program perpetuates an ugly racial sentiment that Black and Latinx families don’t know what’s best for their kids.

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As a kid growing up on the West Side, I remember my grandmother using food assistance coupons at least twice a month to help out with our family’s  groceries. Thousands of families in Illinois access healthy foods, health care and more through the same federally funded Special Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants, and Children. 

In Chicago, however,  your options to make the most out of WIC coupons depends largely on your ZIP code thanks to a discriminatory distinction detailed in a recent report by four Illinois-based nonprofits, including the Greater Chicago Food Depository and the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law. 

To access WIC coupons, families must choose a food clinic located in the area where they apply for benefits. Eligible participants are then issued either orange or blue coupons, which can be redeemed to meet their nutritional needs. 

Orange or blue. The color difference is not purely aesthetic. Instead, it highlights an unjust racial classification embedded in our efforts to reduce food insecurity and promote healthier child births. 

Black and Latinx WIC families on Chicago’s South and West sides, according to the report, are more likely issued orange coupons, which can only be redeemed at one of 16 Food and Nutrition Centers that are all operated by Catholic Charities. Yet WIC families on the North Side — who are predominantly white — are more likely issued blue coupons, which can be used at any participating retailer: Walgreens, Jewels, and even high-end Mariano’s.

The Illinois Department of Human Services plans to phase out physical WIC coupons by 2020, replacing them with an electronic system. We must seize this opportunity to rid the program of its limiting distinction. Here’s why.

As I argued in a letter to the editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, the orange and blue coupon system reduces South and West Side Food and Nutrition Centers’ incentive to improve their customer services because they effectively have a fixed customer pool: Black and Latinx orange coupon recipients. 

The lack of meaningful competition gives these centers license to forego measures that are normally adopted to attract and retain customers. What is more, absent retailers who may supply fresher produce or provide more pleasant customer interaction, South and West Side WIC families do not have the same robust options that are afforded to their North Side counterparts, even though they are equally entitled to them.   

The orange and blue coupon classification also gives harbor to a construct that unfairly places Black and Latinx WIC families in a position to bear the brunt for someone else’s bad acts. According to a 2001 report by the Department of Agriculture, the centers operated by the Catholic Charities were developed to deal with dishonest vendors in areas of concentrated poverty. 

The “Making WIC Work in Illinois” report further indicates that in the 1990s, when the orange vs. blue coupon system was created, the Illinois Department of Human Services did not produce evidence of recipient fraud and abuse, or that distributing different coupons based on race would effectively reduce said fraud and abuse. 

Knocking down this edifice is as much about Chicago’s identity as it is about justice. We are not a city wherein it is OK to maintain a policy designed to streamline vendor fraud at the expense of vulnerable families; or at least we should not be. 

Proponents of the orange vs. blue structure might argue that Food and Nutrition Centers are preferable to participating retailers because they often offer services and resources beyond coupon redemption. This feature, however, should be viewed as a reason for WIC families to choose Food and Nutrition Centers, not as a justification for stifling choice.

There is nothing wrong with the state running WIC clinics. There is, however, something wrong with the Illinois government saying WIC families on the South and West sides cannot choose where to get their groceries, but families on the North Side can.

Retaining this inherently paternalistic system perpetuates an ugly racial sentiment and sends an insidiously divisive, stigmatizing message: low-income parents on the South and West sides do not know what’s best for their kids.

Whether in Uptown or North Lawndale, parents should be equally empowered to make the best decision for their families. Chicago cannot continue to tolerate an arrangement that runs afoul of our basic understanding of fairness. Such a choice-curbing, equity-defying policy has no place in our fight against food insecurity.