Grace in the Grocery Line: What It’s Like to be a WIC Mom


Grace in the Grocery Line

We have all been there.

Whether you do your grocery shopping on your lunch break, on a mad dash between work and dinner time, or while trying to wrangle all your cranky/bored/energetic/overtired/whatever kids on the cart so you can make it home in time for naps, there seems to be a universal understanding among moms that grocery shopping can be stressful. And the one thing that can take even the most successful shopping trip and make it feel like a disaster is when you get stuck in the slowest.checkout.lane.ever.

When you’re stuck in that dreaded lane, trying to distract yourself from the growing frustration of how long this is taking, glancing over racks of tabloids and chewing gum at all the other lines moving faster than yours, you start to stare down that person at the front: what on earth could be taking so long?! you think. You start counting items… you glare at the cashier… then you realize the hold up: this mom is paying with WIC. UGH.

In case you’re not familiar, WIC stands for Women, Infants and Children. This government program provides nutritional assistance to low-income pregnant or nursing moms and children under age 5 by providing certain items for free, such as milk, bread, cheese, eggs, cereal, and beans. If you have ever been a grocery cashier, used WIC, or been stuck behind someone using WIC, you know it is ridiculously time consuming to check out. And regardless of who you are in the situation, it is ridiculously frustrating for everyone.

I have been that person behind a WIC customer, annoyed and tapping my feet, huffing and glaring, wishing “those people” would just get it together or let me and my 6 items go ahead of them or use a designated lane so us paying customers could move through at a reasonable pace. Believe me, I know the frustration.

Then I became a WIC mom.

The circumstances don’t really matter, and no one should ever have to justify themselves in a public forum like the internet, but here I am, a pregnant, stay-at-home mom to 3 kids who depends on WIC every month. It is what it is; it is not a situation I really celebrate, but I am very thankful to live in a country where this is an option for my family. It doesn’t come anywhere close to covering all of our groceries (nor is it supposed to), but it is a big help with a family and income the size of ours.

I am telling you this, anticipating plenty of hate in the comments (tip for bloggers: never read the comments), because I have one simple request for anyone who will listen: please be kind.

Any WIC moms out there will be laughing in solidarity as they read this, but for those of you who don’t know, let me tell you what it’s like. First of all, WIC is a blessing when you need it, but every time I go to pick up my vouchers, my husband and I debate if we really need it. The typical WIC recertification visit takes 3-4 hours. No more than 20-30 minutes of that time is spent actually meeting with a nurse or nutritionist. Being a stay-at-home mom, I usually have my kids in tow, which is a challenge in and of itself, but working moms have to take (probably unpaid) time off to make that appointment. Considering my local health department has the WIC office conveniently located directly across the hall from the Communicable Diseases office, it’s not exactly a trip I look forward to.

Then there’s shopping for WIC. This is no easy task, especially for a beginner to the program. Because WIC is a nutritional assistance program, the items one can purchase are very, very specific. As in, this one particular brand and type and size of item. For instance, the sandwich bread I usually get at Wal-Mart is not carried at Food City, so if I happen to go to a different store, I have to pull out my “list” and stand there in the bread aisle looking for which particular brand-and-type-and-size item that particular store carries.

At last we come to checking out. This is the part that matters to you, oh friend in line behind me. Trust me when I say there is no one more frustrated at the time spent in line than I am. Now that I have been on the program for a while, I know to place the items on the belt in the order they are listed on the voucher, lest the cashier get confused and waste time searching for whatever is next.

Of course the highly specific list of accepted foods is constantly changing, but the stores get this information long before it is passed on to the participant. So I don’t know my usual brand of tortillas has been removed until I go to check out and the machine rejects it. Now I could stand there and wait for the manager to come over and argue with me about whether or not said item should be overridden. (The official WIC policy is that items that are on the approved list in my hand can be overridden even when the machine rejects them, but good luck telling that to any store employee.) However, it is much more efficient to just leave the line and go back to the tortilla aisle and try to find another approved brand-and-type-and-size. This process makes me look like an idiot even though the store is the one breaking “policy” and like a jerk for making you wait even though I promise it’s faster for me to just run back and get what I need. When I finally have all the correct items, signing and running the voucher takes longer than using a personal check, so you’ll have to wait on that too. I know, it’s a pain.

Even with the ridiculous office visits, frustrating shopping experience, and difficult process of checking out, by far the worst part of being on WIC is facing you, my friend, the person in line behind me. Whether you’re being inconspicuous or passive aggressive, I see you checking your watch every 60 seconds and huffing your breath every time the cashier questions one of my items. I see you walking back and forth to nearby checkout lanes, considering whether it is worth it for you to reload all your items back in your cart and move to another line.

I see you glaring at me while I try to explain things to yet another misunderstanding cashier while simultaneously failing to prevent my kids from destroying the light-up keychains and candy bars in the checkout aisle. I feel the cashier’s frustration and the manager’s annoyance when she gets called over to deal with my “problem.”

And you know what? It already sucks that I need to endure this situation to afford my groceries this month. The judgment from literally everyone around me in the store is not changing my circumstances; it only makes me feel 2 inches tall.

You know what else I notice when I’m checking out my WIC items? Kindness. The woman behind me who makes small talk and tells me how beautiful my children are. The man who makes funny faces at the kids to entertain them, because they certainly hate this waiting too. The cashier who laughs and tells me how different things were when she was on WIC a few years ago and you could only get dry beans instead of cans. The other family with kids who stands patiently behind me and smiles when I apologize for the wait. Your kindness may not change my circumstances either, but it certainly makes this world a better place to live.

My friend, I know how frustrating it is to be stuck in a slow line at the grocery store. I know how it feels to bring milk into the office break room because I didn’t have time to run home after the store on my lunch break. I know how difficult it is to distract my fussy baby while the person in front of me has issues with their own checkout. But I also know how it feels to be on the other end of the line, and I know no one feels worse about the situation than the one causing the hold up. Next time you’re stuck in line behind a WIC mom (or someone whose credit card won’t run or that customer counting out pennies to pay with exact change), think of how you would feel standing in their shoes. And remember that Golden Rule you’re teaching your kids? Treat others the way you would want to be treated in that situation: with grace.

Have you found yourself frustrated in the slow line? Or have you been the one holding everyone up? How do you handle when you’re in that situation?



  1. I don’t know if this blog is still active, or if you’ll see this post. But I just wanted to thank you for writing it. I am a single mom of a one and half month old beautiful baby girl, and I get no help whatsoever from the father – he is totally, 100% uninvolved. I couldn’t be happier to have her, but there is a ton of strain on me, and I’m trying to go to school, work full time, pay for childcare and rent and utilities…well, you know. It all adds up. Tonight, I used my WIC checks for the first time. I went around 11 PM so it wouldn’t be busy, and slowly meandered through the aisles checking my pamphlet repeatedly, all the while feeling like every person I passed was staring at me. My baby slept in her carseat, tucked into the cart, and I kept staring at her sweet face, telling myself everything was for her. Then, the checkout process. A cashier who didn’t really know what she was doing. Getting the wrong items because of my inexperience and policy changes. The kind, sweet, wonderful woman behind me who kept a smile on her face and complimented my baby girl, repeatedly telling me it was all fine as I tried to keep it together. I felt awful when I finally got out of there, loaded my groceries, and managed to get us home. After putting everything away, I took my (now yelling) baby out of the carseat and clung to her, my own tears falling. I wanted to know how other moms dealt with these feelings, and I found this. I bawled like a baby. My next WIC experiences will probably be just as not fun, but I won’t feel so down on myself for it anymore, thanks to this. Thank you.

    • Oh dear Lydia! I know so well that feeling of exhaustion and frustration after your first WIC trip. I promise, you will get the hang of it! You are certainly not alone in this. Your daughter is worth it, and YOU are worth it to receive this help. Don’t let anyone ever make you feel small because of it. You’re doing a great job taking care of your little love. Hugs to you!!


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