Why are WIC benefits going unused in Tennessee?

Why are white eggs approved but not organic brown eggs?

Why are WIC benefits going unused in Tennessee?
Gwen, Tyner, Tennessee

On Sunday, we told the story of Gwen, a grandmother in Tyner working two jobs, living with four other people in a two-bedroom apartment and struggling with a stack of bills over an inch thick.

"I'm trying," she told us. "I'm trying so hard."

The story resonated with many of you. One local restaurant owner called it "the most important article" that Food as a Verb has published.

"Our community needs to hear this," he said.

We agree; if Food as a Verb is going to tell stories of local food, it must also include stories of the lack and ache for local food. This was difficult for Gwen; we are humbled by her honesty and vulnerability. She walked us to her fridge.

Do you see the baby formula in the photo? On the second shelf?

Gwen's daughter and infant son share the second bedroom. Her daughter receives Women, Infants and Children (WIC) benefits, Gwen said. WIC is a federally-funded nutritional supplemental program managed through each state.

Residents — pregnant, postpartum and breastfeeding with children four years old or younger – are eligible by certain income levels.

Or, painfully, the lack of.

Tennessee Dept. of Health

WIC participants receive a monthly food allowance; the program is tremendously helpful, offering access to nutrition and vitamins (and baby formula) that may otherwise be out of reach.

Yet, across the US, barely half of all eligible participants are actually enrolled in WIC benefits, the US Dept. of Agriculture recently reported.

"In an average month of 2021, an estimated 12.1 million people were eligible to participate in WIC. Of that group, 6.2 million people participated in the program," the USDA reports.

In Tennessee, the coverage rate is 41%.

Only 41% of eligible Tennessee residents participate in the program, meaning some 161,000 families are missing out on WIC benefits.

USDA's National and State Level Estimates of WIC Eligibility

The data is from 2021, with some suggesting that there's a rise in participation over the last two years. Until the data is released, the question remains: why is the rate so low?

And what is the rate in Hamilton County?

The USDA suggests a national decrease in US births and an increase in economic conditions. Others suggest difficulty accessing the benefits or an associated stigma.

Is what's true nationally also true locally?

The White House requested an increase in funding; last month, Congress passed a stopgap bill that funds WIC through January.

WIC benefits can only be used on certain types of foods. Tennessee's Dept. of Health publishes its own approved food guide.

The list is both generous and oddly anti-organic strict. There are dozens of eligible cereals, for example, but participants cannot purchase organic brown rice.

Whole grains, yes.

But not bakery bread. Or bread with raisins. Or cranberries. Or any organic bread whatsoever.

TN Dept. of Health WIC Guide

WIC participants can purchase eggs, but only white eggs.

Not brown eggs.

Not organic eggs.

TN Dept. of Health WIC Guide

Cheese, but not organic cheese.

Milk, but not organic milk.

Now, back to our big question:

Why are rates low in Tennessee?

And are they equally low in Hamilton County? My gut tells me no. I have a hunch that here, WIC participation rates are high.

We'll follow up soon. Calls to the state's Dept. of Health went unanswered. We look forward to talking with our local health department, as well, at their convenience.

This Sunday, we travel to Sewanee for a behind-the-scenes look at one of the best meals we had in a very, very long time.

We had lunch at LUNCH.

LUNCH, Sewanee, Tennessee

See you then, Food as a Verb community.

All photography by Sarah Unger. Visit SarahCatherinePhoto.com

Story ideas? Interested in sponsorship opportunities + supporting our work? Feedback or questions? Email David Cook at david@foodasaverb.com. This story is 100% human generated; no AI chatbot was used in the creation of this content.

Food as a Verb thanks our sustaining partners for their generous support.

Regional Farmers Markets

  • Main St. Farmers Market, Corner of W. 20th and Chestnut St., near Finley Stadium

Wednesday, 4 - 6pm (Note: the Thanksgiving week market was held on Tuesday.)

  • Brainerd Farmers Market, Grace Episcopal Church, 20 Belvoir Ave,

Saturday, 10am - noon

  • Chattanooga Market, 1820 Carter Street

Sunday, 11am - 4pm

  • Ooltewah Farmers Market, The Ooltewah Nursery

Thursday, 3 - 6pm 

  • Signal Mountain Farmers Market

Pre-order online for Thursday pick-up between 4 - 6pm at Bachman Community Center

  • St. Albans Farmers Market, 7514 Hixson Pike

Saturday, 9.30am - 12.30pm with a free pancake breakfast every third Saturday  

  • Walker County Farmers Market

Wednesday, 2 - 5 pm, Rock Spring Ag. Center 

Saturday, 9 am - 1 pm, downtown Lafayette, Georgia

To include your farmers market, email david@foodasaverb.com.

Dig in. (It's free)