The federally-financed and state-administered program called "Women, Infants and Children," helps nearly a 1.5 million low-income families in California buy nutritious food. They receive monthly vouchers for a specific list of items and the store fills out the amount for government reimbursement.
However, in expanding the number of local independent stores that accept WIC vouchers, an investigation by The Bay Citizen found some are charging abnormally high prices. The website published pictures showing store owners charging nearly $10 for a box of Cheerios and $7.50 for a loaf of bread, all paid for by taxpayers. Senator Mark DeSaulnier, who heads the budget subcommittee on health and humans Services, says, "It's gouging. It's gouging people who really can't afford it, which is all of us."
Advocates for the poor says the program has limited funds, the money should be going to feed hungry children, not line the pockets of store owners. "When you have a bad actor out there, taking more money than they should and charging them more money than they shold for a box of cereal, you're taking money out of the mouths of babes," says Jessica Bartholow with the Western Center on Law and Poverty.
One store owner who asked not to be identified said he has to charge higher prices because WIC mandates that they carry a certain number of each food item, even the ones that don't really sell like soy or Lactaid milk. He ends up throwing them away and losing money. He makes it up by raising the prices of other WIC products.
The state is now cracking down on smaller WIC stores by reducing reimbursement rates and implementing stronger procedures that'll fully be in place by mid-May. "These stores were widely expanded over the last five or six years to give access and we have now recognized that the charges in these stores are unacceptably high," said California Health and Human Services Secretary Diana Dooley.