The food retail environment has been directly linked to disparities in dietary behaviors and may in part explain racial and ethnic disparities in pregnancy-related deaths. The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), administered by the United States Department of Agriculture, is associated with improved healthy food and beverage access due to its requirement for minimum stock of healthy foods and beverages in WIC-eligible stores. The selection and authorization criteria used to authorize WIC vendors varies widely from state to state with little known about the specific variations. This paper reviews and summarizes the differences across 16 of these criteria enacted by 89 WIC administrative agencies: the 50 states, the District of Columbia, five US Territories, and 33 Indian Tribal Organizations. Vendor selection and authorization criteria varied across WIC agencies without any consistent pattern. The wide variations in criteria and policies raise questions about the rational for inconsistency. Some of these variations, in combination, may result in reduced access to WIC-approved foods and beverages by WIC participants. For example, minimum square footage and/or number of cash register criteria may limit vendors to larger retail operations that are not typically located in high-risk, under-resourced communities where WIC vendors are most needed. Results highlight an opportunity to convene WIC stakeholders to review variations, their rationale, and implications thereof especially as this process could result in improved policies to ensure and improve healthy food and beverage access by WIC participants. More work remains to better understand the value of state WIC vendor authorization authority, particularly in states that have provided stronger monitoring requirements. This work might also examine if and how streamlining WIC vendor criteria (or at least certain components of them) across regional areas or across the country could provide an opportunity to advance interstate commerce and promote an equitable supply of food across the food system, while ensuring the protection for local, community-oriented WIC vendors.
Keywords: Federal Nutrition Assistance Program; WIC; food policy; health food access; healthy in-store marketing; infants and children; women.