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A huge change is coming for all WIC recipients, freeing them from a nightmare of bureaucracy that held up grocery lines around the state.

They will now be given cards, similar to the card used for food stamps.

It may sound like a simple change. But it could allow pregnant mothers and mothers of young children to buy all of their groceries at once, rather than first buying all their WIC items. It could also allow them to space out their purchases.

That has not been allowed until now. Mothers received a stack of paper checks, each one for a different type of food. There was a check for bread products, such as pasta and tortillas. Another was for cereal, milk and cheese. A third one was for fruit and vegetables.

Each one specified how much product the mother could buy. She was allowed a pound of certain brands of cheese, for example. But if she made a mistake and purchased less than a pound, she could not buy more until she got the next month’s checks. With the card, she can buy until she hits the month’s limit.

The separate checks were mostly noticed by others when they had to wait in line at a grocery store. The cashier had to ring up one type of food, then receive the check for that food, and then check the signature on the check to make sure it matched the signature on the mother’s WIC identification card. And on and on, for each check.

Warren County WIC Outreach officers Crystal McKinney could rattle off exactly what food is allowed with each check, but she acknowledged that the learning curve is huge. And it’s not easy for a mother with young children to ring up all the WIC groceries, and then go back into the store to buy the rest of her groceries, and wait in line again to pay for those.

McKinney is hoping that soon, that will change.

“Eventually, they’re going to be able to do all their grocery shopping at once,” she said.

But she’s been teaching mothers to use a cellphone app to scan the barcodes of every item they want to buy. She’s worried that without the strict check system, mothers will accidentally pick an item that is the wrong brand or size. (Canned beans, for example, can’t be more than 18 ounces, while the only allowed juice is concentrate in 11-ounce cans.)

Under the check system, those items would be rejected. But now, the cashier could ring up everything together, and the mother would swipe her WIC card and then use cash for her other purchases.

“She could end up buying something that she didn’t realize wasn’t accepted (by WIC),” McKinney said.

Mothers are not too worried about that eventuality. They heard this summer that the change was coming, and started asking for their cards in August, she said.

“When they come in (to get the card), they’re extremely happy,” she said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture told all states to switch to electronic cards by 2020. New York began a pilot program in the Capital District in April and rolled it out in Washington, Warren, Saratoga and neighboring counties in the last three weeks. The state Department of Health will continue to expand the program, county by county, with the goal of making it available to all WIC recipients, and usable at all WIC stores, by spring 2019.

“We have already heard from grateful families about the difference that the eWIC technology has made in ensuring they have access to nutritious food, without the shame that can be felt holding up a grocery line using an outdated system,” Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul said in a statement. “By bringing the WIC system into the 21st century, we’re enhancing this critical benefits program and promoting convenient shopping for all New Yorkers.”

Pregnant mothers, parents of young children, grandparents, foster parents and other caregivers can apply for WIC benefits. Children can qualify until age 5.

For a family of three, the income limit is $37,296.

Those who are already enrolled in Medicaid, SNAP or TANF are automatically considered income-eligible.

To find the nearest WIC office, call the Growing Up Healthy Hotline at 1-800-522-5006, visit the New York State Department of Health website at www.health.ny.gov/wic, or use the WIC2Go mobile app.

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You can reach Kathleen Moore at 742-3247 or kmoore@poststar.com. Follow her on Twitter @ByKathleenMoore or at her blog on www.poststar.com.

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