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News Icon 9/4/2020

Written by Tyler Hazard and Katya Simkhovich

The problems in our food system have always been intersectional, and they need intersectional solutions.

As the country shifts away from the cruel cage confinement of farmed animals, with retailers working towards their 100% cage-free egg commitments and states passing legislation banning the production and sale of products from caged animals, it is imperative we foster a just transition that not only creates meaningful change in the lives of animals, but also allows all US consumers to partake in that progress.

Compassion USA firmly believes that everyone, regardless of income, should be able to make food choices that align with their values. Economic status must not be a barrier to compassionate decision-making. Unfortunately, for too many, it is.

Recent federal survey data indicates that one-in-six US families with children experienced some level of food insecurity in the past week due to lack of resources. And USDA data shows that last year, 36.7 million and 6.4 million Americans enrolled in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), respectively. From recent conversations with state WIC agencies, we’ve learned these numbers are expected to grow significantly this year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

For these families, what they place in their carts at the grocery store does not simply boil down to choice, but to cost and access. While SNAP allows its recipients broad agency in deciding how to spend their benefits, the WIC program, which provides additional food assistance to support the nutrition of pregnant women, young mothers, and children, has a much narrower scope of approved foods as determined by each state—and in most states, cage-free eggs are not one of them.

WIC Approved Food Lists (AFLs) are determined with nutrition, availability, and cost in mind. However, with more compassionate food choices becoming increasingly available and affordable, we have the opportunity and obligation to expand those considerations to allow for greater and more equitable participation in a more ethical food system.

Currently, only Maine, Michigan, New Mexico, Ohio, Washington, and Wyoming allow WIC recipients permanent access to cage-free eggs. Other states, like Texas and California, temporarily have expanded their AFLs to include cage-free eggs only for the duration of the COVID-19 public health emergency to ensure food availability.

Not only is the prohibition of cage-free eggs an economic justice concern, but it’s also a logistical challenge for national retailers with cage-free commitments. Nearly every major retailer in the US that has a commitment to go 100% cage-free in their egg supply by 2025, including giants like Walmart, Target, and Kroger, also participates in the WIC program.

Meaning, unless this obstacle is addressed through WIC, major retailers will either be unable to fulfill their public commitment to consumers or will be unable to fully serve WIC recipients. Neither of these outcomes is acceptable.

The next few years will be a critical period, during which WIC programs across the nation will need to adapt to the changing retailer market and include cage-free eggs in their AFLs—for their recipients, retailers, and farmed animals alike. As the country deals with the economic fallout of COVID-19 in the months and years to come, and possibly more families than ever before turn to WIC for nutrition assistance, we must ensure that everyone can stand by their values while also to keeping their household fed.

Compassion USA is committed to, and already undertaking, the work of dismantling this regulatory barrier to participation in and progress towards a more compassionate food system by working alongside both retailers and the WIC program to expand access to cage-free eggs.

Tyler Circle Headshot Tyler Hazard is the Public Engagement Manager at Compassion in World Farming USA. He holds a B.S. in Animal Science and Psychology, and an M.S. in Animals and Public Policy from Tufts University.
Katya Circle Headshot Katya Simkhovich is the Senior Food Business Manager at Compassion in World Farming USA. She holds a B.A. in Food Studies from New York University.