Nutrition App Slices Red Tape for Low-Income Moms

A federally run nutrition program for women, infants and children is complex and difficult to use. But now there's an app to fix all that.

by / November 6, 2014
Putting food on the table is difficult enough for low-income mothers, however, many enrolled in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Women, Infants and Children program must cope with technical holdups that inhibit access to subsidized foods. Flickr/Nathan Fixler

A long line has formed at a grocery checkout and people are impatient and fidgeting. The cashier has just rung up a large purchase. He’s slid a woman’s payment card twice through the credit card reader and twice her card has been declined. He runs it a third time and explains to the mother with two squirming children the transaction was rejected. As other customers grow irritated, the checker begins to rescan the items one by one by one.

“It’s humiliating,” says Maxwell Thayer, a developer who’s listened to a number of such stories. As founder of QuickWIC, Thayer said many low-income mothers are often subjected to this type of stigmatizing experience when they participate in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). 

Since the program’s launch in 1974, WIC has provided low-income mothers and children with healthy foods and nutritional education to reduce the number of premature births, anemia, unhealthy birth weights and even tragic instances of fetal and infant death. WIC's services include food subsidies, immunizations and prenatal care. In 2013, Congress allocated $6.52 billion for WIC benefits.

But WIC participation is declining, despite statistics that show demand has not diminished. According to the USDA, WIC enrollees have dropped 10.6 percent — about 512,000 users — between 2010 and May 2013. Conversely, participation in food stamp assistance — also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — has seen a major rise from 40.3 million participants in 2010 to 47.6 in 2013, a gain of 15.3 percent.

Officials blame poor tech tools for the drop. That's where QuickWIC can help. It's a mobile app that makes the WIC program more functional and user-friendly. Thayer, whose startup is based in Seattle, said he was both dismayed and compelled to action last summer when he first learned of WIC. He had met a mother in her 30s participating in the program, and said he was amazed at the support afforded and yet struck by its complexities.

"There are only certain items approved in the certain stores and it's very hard for mothers to identify those items without assistance,” he said.

The path for help is covered in red tape and technicalities. For example, should a mother learn of the program, she must prove through various forms of documentation that her income is 185 percent below the U.S. Poverty Income Guidelines, or show she’s enrolled in another assistance program like food stamps or Medicaid. Once paperwork is processed, she is required to meet with a nutritionist and then is issued a card to buy pre-approved goods.

Next, the mother has to navigate a lengthy database of eligible foods. This listing is usually online but sometimes can only be downloaded in a PDF document. WIC approved stores are listed in another online database.

Stores can — but don’t always — label approved products, which are marked with small paper food shelf placards and circular product stickers. It’s not uncommon for the stickers to fall off, go missing or be placed on the wrong set of goods, according to Thayer. Once a mother identifies the approved items, she has to purchase the correct quantities, which can be difficult as approved WIC items are not measured in monetary values but in quantities such as ounces, grams, and so on.

Making it to the cash register is the last hurdle. Some stores process WIC purchases at a limited number of checkout stands. If just one item is unapproved, or if an item exceeds the limits of ounces and grams allotted, Thayer said the whole transaction is rejected and the cashier must rescan all items for errors. The worst-case scenario is when WIC participants happen to forget their balances, which can require them to contact a WIC office for help — assuming those offices are open.

"It's really untimely, it hurts the retailer in the supermarket because it totally disrupts their lane flow and efficiency of their transactions, but more so, it's just really humiliating for the mother,” Thayer said.

Thayer’s QuickWIC app simplifies the process through modern features and functions. The app lets mothers see benefit balances at a glance with visual icons and in real time. For example, in place of an ounce- or gram-balance, the app displays quantities by product icons. Five gallons of milk translates into five icons of plastic milk jugs and 32 ounces of baby formula is shown as four cans. If a mother isn't sure if a brand is WIC-approved, she can scan the product's bar codes with her smartphone’s camera to know instantly of approved products. Other features include a catalog showing recently approved items and a chat messaging feature that connects mothers with staff at a WIC office.

Thayer said consumer demands for mobile-first software made the smartphone the device of choice for the WIC app. Most mothers in the program are under the age of 26 and research shows that 75 percent of that demographic have smartphones.

"It struck me that the smartphone is the perfect vehicle to solve some of these problems,” Thayer said. “And that's how we came up with QuickWIC, which is basically the delivery of real-time, instantaneous, accurate benefits to a smartphone for mothers."

In October QuickWIC announced a partnership with the federally recognized Chickasaw Nation, a Native American nation in Oklahoma. Thayer said he will pilot the app there, yet envisions marketing it to the WIC’s 90 agencies in all 50 states. Recent legislation calls for WIC programs to digitize their data by 2020, and this may accelerate the company's plans. So far, 13 states have or are in the process of digitizing their WIC data.

QuickWIC will be available in Chickasaw next year. In addition to its previously mentioned features, the app will offer appointment reminders and other add-ons. Melinda Newport, director of Chickasaw’s Nutrition Services, said the collaboration was a matter of sheer convenience and long overdue for mothers burdened to track balances and face challenges at the checkout aisle.

“[Chickasaw sought] to provide state-of-the-art information to participants in a manner that is convenient, customer-friendly and a technology that is familiar and easily accessed,” Newport said in an email. “We hope to launch the app in the spring of 2015 and it will continue to be available to participants and receive enhancements and become more robust over time.”

Jason Shueh former staff writer

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.