Jane Says: WIC Benefits and a Tight Budget Shouldn’t Stand in the Way of Good Food

Whether you rely on WIC Benefits or are simply pinching pennies, our advice columnist has strategies for stretching your dollars at the dinner table.

Just because you've got a tight budget or are relying on WIC benefits doesn't mean you can't eat well. (Photo: Influx Productions/Getty Images)
Jane Lear was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

“What can a family that relies on WIC benefits do when it comes to wanting better [food] options?” —Amanda Hopsecker

Knowing how to stretch every penny is critical these days, and this is especially true if you have limited means and a very young family to care for. Enter the USDA Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Children, and Infants (WIC), a federal safety net since 1972, thanks to Senator Hubert Humphrey (D) of Minnesota, who sponsored the legislation. The WIC program provides healthful foods, nutrition education, and social services referrals to low–income pregnant women, new mothers, and “infants and children up to age 5 who are at nutrition risk.”

We’ll leave aside the fact that in the richest, most fortunate country in the world, 16 million kids go hungry. We’ll also leave aside the fact that some politicians think that cutting funding for programs like WIC and SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (a.k.a. food stamps), is a smart idea. Let’s just not go there. Well, not today, at any rate.

Instead, we’re going to focus on the positive. Even though eating healthful, delicious meals on too-few food dollars is a definite challenge (just ask Mario Batali), it has gotten easier with Good Food on a Tight Budget, a downloadable free guide just published by the Environmental Working Group (EWG)

MORE: Good Food on a Tight Budget? Yes, It's Possible

The watchdog organization’s analytical yet down-to-earth approach (it includes a meal planner, sample shopping list, price tracker, and recipes) is geared to the estimated 45 million people who receive SNAP benefits, so most of the guide is also relevant to WIC recipients. “The only thing to note,” said EWG nutritionist Dawn Undurraga, “is that those receiving WIC get a food package based on their needs: whether they’re pregnant, breastfeeding, or have a baby starting food. So everyone’s WIC food vouchers are going to be slightly different. Also, WIC is a supplemental program, so you can’t buy a complete diet with it. For instance, you can’t buy oils, meat, or white potatoes with WIC vouchers.”

Undurraga suggested that WIC recipients look at what their vouchers say—“fruits and vegetables,” for example—then look to those categories in the guide for which ones pack the most nutrition for the lowest cost. And many of the tips scattered through the guide are specifically for families with children. My favorite is a list of kid-approved roasted veggies: The more caramelized they get, the sweeter, and thus more appealing, they become.

EWG’s partners in producing the guide include the anti-hunger nonprofit Share Our Strength (SOS). For WIC recipients who may be novice or hesitant cooks, that organization runs excellent Cooking Matters programs in many neighborhoods across the country. Not only will you get a chance to brush up on your culinary skills, but you’ll meet other people who are also looking to cook healthier meals for their families and who you can share tips and recipes with. To find out if there’s a class near you, click here.

Whether you are certified to receive WIC benefits or on the waiting list for certification, you’re eligible to participate in the WIC Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (FMNP). During 2011, 4,079 farmers markets (out of 7,175 nationwide) and 3,184 roadside stands were authorized to accept FMNP coupons. To find a participating farmers market near you, check out this page from the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service. Market vendors often discount their produce (including organic) later in the day, so that is a smart time to shop; and many farmers markets are open year round.

No matter what sort of budget you’re on, one thing that often torpedoes healthy eating is time. Take dried beans, available in bulk at many supermarkets. With the exception of lentils, they need to be soaked before cooking, and once in the pot they will not, cannot be rushed.

Still, if you can carve out some time on the weekend or even in the evening while cooking that night’s dinner, it’s possible to get a big pot of beans working on a back burner. Let them cool completely, then refrigerate or freeze them in an airtight container for later use. If you have been rice-and-beaned to death, then you will appreciate a taste of the mountain South with these recipes for soup beans and cornbread from writer, rocker, and cornbread fundamentalist Ronni Lundy.

And keep an eye out for vegetables—turnips and beets, for example—that are what I call twofers. Because the greens are more perishable, I tend to use them first. Try them sautéed or braised, then piled on whole-grain pasta or toast. A fried egg on top is an economical way to add protein. Beet and turnip greens are often free for the asking at farmers markets, as are mellow broccoli leaves, which you can treat the same way. As for the roots, roast the beets and serve them in a salad, along with canned sardines or canned salmon—two very inexpensive, sustainable, delicious sources of protein and omega-3s. Turnips are sublime roasted, cooked in a soup, or simmered until tender and puréed.

“These suggestions are all well and good,” you are thinking. “But how can I get my kids to eat this stuff?” As if you didn’t have enough to worry about!

All I can offer up is this: Children who are included in shopping or preparing food are more inclined to take pride in it, own it, and enjoy it. And I’m reminded of something I learned early on from my parents, who were both shaped by the Great Depression. Although times were tough for much of my childhood, they never spoke of doing without, but of simply making choices. One of those choices, I think, was to always find pleasure in what was on the table. And I did, too.

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