9/23/20 - A Message from Secretary Hou: Bright Spot - WIC Program

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Good Afternoon colleagues,

Protecting the well-being of Illinois families has always been a priority for our agency, especially when it comes to ensuring that families have access to the most basic necessities, such as food. In today's Bright Spot, I am thrilled to share an update about the modernization of our WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) program.

The WIC program offers special nutrition assistance that focuses on the extra needs of low-income pregnant, post-partum, and breastfeeding women and families with children up to age five. WIC providers also offer nutritional counseling and access to health services for women, infants and children. Studies show that women who participate in the WIC program during their pregnancies have lower long-term Medicaid costs, longer gestation periods, higher birth weights and lower infant mortality.

With a transition process in the works for nearly five years, Illinois launched a pilot in March 2020 to begin shifting 160,000 Illinois WIC participants from an outdated computer system launched in the 1990s. For many years, the WIC program provided families with paper checks that issued their benefits. This system restricted the independence and confidence of families in their grocery shopping decisions. Families were forced to purchase all items at once, or to go without an item that month if they decided not to purchase at that time - and to face the stigma associated with using WIC checks to purchase groceries.

This rollout has not been easy in a COVID-19 environment; however, the IDHS WIC Team and the 96 local WIC providers across the state persevered. Instead of traditional, in-person training, offices came together for virtual training and instruction. Staff provided technical and emotional support to WIC health professionals, clerical staff, and participants via telephone. In addition, approximately 2,000 retail vendors were contacted, trained, and prepared to take the WIC EBT card via remote services.

The last WIC offices convert to the new system with EBT cards at the end of the month, with all participating families expected to be using the card by the end of December.

As part of a larger federal rollout, this process has presented many opportunities for the Bureau of Family Nutrition. Led by Bureau Chief and Interim Associate Director Stephanie Bess, the team includes about 25 staff, and every member has played a part in this project to dramatically improve the system.

I want to extend my sincerest thanks to Stephanie and to the entire team for an exemplary job in moving our system to the 21st century, and creating a better, more effective, and positive customer experience for Illinois families.



Grace B. Hou

Secretary, IDHS