The Pennsylvania Department of Health is considering a mobile app for its WIC program that could both streamline processes and benefit recipients by encouraging them to make healthier decisions when purchasing food.

WIC provides pregnant women, mothers and caregivers of infants and young children with nutrition and health-care services, with more than 253,000 people participating in Pennsylvania.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 mandated that all state WIC programs transition to an electronic benefits transfer (EBT) system by Oct. 1, 2020. Current EBT solutions primarily involve either swipe cards or smart cards, but Pennsylvania may be moving toward a more modern approach to deliver benefits in the future.
 
“We have to plan based on existing technology, but we are also looking at how we might leverage a mobile application to accomplish this,” said Patrick Keating, CIO of the state's Health Department. “Our concern is that by 2020, smart cards and swipe cards may not be the best solution.” 
 
Research from the Gartner Group predicts that “dumb” phones will have completely vanished by 2017 and constituents will use only smartphones, making a mobile app for EBT a viable solution. 
 
“It’s a bit of a Catch-22 at this point because we are a little ahead of the game, but by the time we get there, people will expect this kind of technology to be available,” Keating said. 
 
He pointed to retailers like Starbucks, Wendy’s and Burger King that are already allowing customers to purchase food and beverages using a mobile app. “If we can buy fast food with a mobile app, why can’t we buy real food?” Keating asked. “It’s going to take a little while to come up with viable solutions, but the technology is going to be there soon.”
 
Companies that utilize mobile apps today leverage closed networks for payment purposes, so the app can only be used at a single retailer. An EBT app would be more complex, because it would need to support the ability to make purchases at a number of different retail locations. 
 
“Some of the standards would have to change, and the retailers would have to get on board in order to make it work,” Keating said. “Most of our clients go to the large retail stores, but some go to mom and pop vendors too. We’d have to do some analysis to determine where the marketplace is with mobile payments. Do we tie into the closed networks that are out there? Are there other payment options available? When you look at MasterCard and Visa and other larger payment services, they are already going down this path. There is a movement in place, and I think we’ll catch up as we go through the process.”
 
The hope is that a mobile app might also encourage WIC benefits recipients to make smarter and healthier buying decisions, Keating added. For example, an app could potentially allow users to comparison shop, tell them where the nearest store is, what they can buy at that store, and what payment options are available. App users could also scan the barcode of a particular item to verify that it’s a WIC-eligible food. 
 
“There are several ways we could leverage the technology to help our clients make better decisions and give them more information so they can better leverage their buying power,” Keating said. 
 
He’s heard of a few other states considering a mobile app to provide information to WIC recipients, but none that are looking to tie in the EBT payment component yet. 
Justine Brown  |  Contributing Writer