WIC changes in Mississippi could create new food insecurity

TUNICA COUNTY, Tenn. (WMC) – The Mississippi State Department of Health is closing all 95 of its WIC food distribution sites by late summer and early fall.

WIC provides supplemental nutrition to women, infants, and children.

This change, particularly going electronic, is one that’s already been made in several states across the U.S. All WIC food distribution centers in North Mississippi will close June 30.

This comes as the Mississippi Department of Health transfers WIC clients to an electronic system.

Clients will be given an eWIC, which functions like a debit card to use at any approved WIC grocery stores.

“I think it’s going to make it a lot easier to have the card now, and just being able to go to the grocery store because they sometimes run out of food here. So, it’s just going to help out a lot in my opinion,” said Hailey Page Baroni.

Baroni says going to the grocery store will be a one-stop shop.

The state department of health confirms this transition is something WIC clients requested. The health department also says this will give WIC clients a choice of where to purchase food and infant formula, and says the list of products has been expanded.

eWIC cards will be accepted at 275 authorized locations across the state. But several counties in North Mississippi, including Tunica, Tate, Marshall and Coahoma only have two WIC authorized vendors.

Tallahatchie has one and Quitman has none, a surprise to WIC clients there.

”Well, I don’t feel too good about it you know, because I was thinking that you could take it to any grocery store and get what you need,” said one resident.

Jeffcoat’s Family Market is the only grocery store in Quitman County. It’s located in Marks.

Store manger Debbie Hearn says they missed the deadline to become a WIC vendor.

“This store did not open until March, so we were not able to do the paperwork,” said Hearn.

That paperwork, according to the health department, was due November 30, 2020.

Hearn says COVID-19 delayed the store opening. She says she’s reached out to the health department and explained the circumstance, but has been shut down.

”We pushed it as far as we can. We were told that there is no way we could get approved, so I really would like for anybody out there that has any pull to please help get this for people in this county,” Hearn said.

Hearn says they’ve been told they will have to wait to apply March of next year.

As of now, the closest grocery store that will accept WIC for Quitman County residents is in Coahoma County, 18 miles away.

It’s a challenge indicative of the food security rate in Mississippi.

“It’s pretty high in Mississippi. It’s about 18.5 percent food insecurity rate in Mississippi where as the national average is going to be more about 11 percent,| said Cathy Pope, president and CEO of the Mid-South Food Bank.

Pope says some counties have an even higher rate.

”Oh yeah, we have some counties in North Mississippi that are over 20 percent, 23 percent Quitman,” she said.

To help Quitman County residents, Pope says they’ve been communicating with food pantries in rural counties to ensure they have produce for families. One of those pantries is Mississippi Delta Council Food Pantry located in Clarksdale.

“We serve maybe 1,500 to 2,000 families per month,” said Donald Green, executive director of Mississippi Delta Council Food Pantry.

Green says they serve all 14 counties in the Delta.

”About 90 percent of our people that come to us have small children age 0 to 5,” he said.

Organizations like Save the Children also help fill in the gap. Program specialist Danita Mozee says there is no income requirement for families to receive help. She says parents can inquire about the program at their child’s school as they are in seven schools across six Delta counties.

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