In Austin, where many families struggle to get by, young mothers like Jasmine Dodson depend on the federal Women Infants Children program to feed their kids.
While she’s grateful for the help, Dodson and her baby receive monthly food vouchers that can be redeemed only at one of 18 Chicago WIC food centers; Dodson goes to the center at 5125 W. Chicago Ave., the only such location in Austin, Chicago’s largest neighborhood.
In other parts of the Chicagoland area, including the nearby west suburbs, WIC recipients can redeem their food vouchers at a number of grocery stores, such as Jewel, Tony’s Finer Foods and Walgreens. The color of the suburban-issued vouchers are blue, while those distributed in Austin are orange.
“The programs are still the same because the criteria throughout the state is the same,” said Annete Jones, a clerk at the Chicago Department of Public Health’s Austin WIC office.
But some Austin WIC recipients insist there are major differences, putting them at a distinct disadvantage.
“It would be much more convenient for me and my baby if I could cash my WIC at a local grocery store,” said Dodson, who’s used vouchers since she was four months pregnant. Her baby is now 11 months.
Dodson’s older sister, Jeri, has a 1-month-old baby. Jeri Dodson said the Austin WIC’s center’s hours of operation make it difficult for her to get there, given her work schedule.
The Dodson sisters also worry about their safety.
“The location of the WIC store is not necessarily in a safe area,” said Jeri Dodson. “But I think the location is where people in Austin are familiar with. If we can’t redeem our coupons anywhere else, we at least need more than one WIC store in Austin.”
Unlike the variety found at a local grocery store, the food centers carry only WIC products. Sometimes, the food centers run out.
“On a daily basis, we see about 62 clients,” said Nicole Wardlow, executive assistant to the president at Austin’s WIC food center. “However, traffic is usually slow during the beginning of each month because most clients would have just received their vouchers.”
When mothers enter the Austin center, they sign in at the reception desk; if they have children with them, they can drop them off at the provided kids’ play area while they shop. The store has four aisles stocked with canned goods, dairy products, baby formula, juices and fresh produce.
“I would say that the store is pretty clean,” said Jeri Dodson.
But the Dodson sisters wish others could accompany them into the store to help; only WIC recipients are allowed into the store due to privacy.
Jeri Dodson said when she was pregnant, it was hard for her to shop since she had to do it alone.
Wardlow said help is offered: “Pregnant moms who come into the grocery area can receive assistance from the customer service coordinators in the store.”
“The Austin area does not have a lot of options for young moms to purchase fresh vegetables and fruits and dairy for their babies at affordable prices,” said Marsha Belcher, director of marketing and research at the Community and Economic Development Association of Cook County, the non-profit organization that administers WIC.
“The WIC food centers in Chicago are definitely an excellent place for families to get their WIC products,” said Tom Green, a spokesman for the Illinois Department of Human Services.
He said it’s not unfair that recipients in Austin can redeem their vouchers at only one place. But he concedes there’s room for improvement.