by Allie Molinaro
Cage-free access has reached a new milestone, with over 60% of Americans on the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) now able to buy cage-free eggs using their benefits. Florida, the third-largest WIC agency with over 400,000 participants, is the latest to add cage-free eggs to its Approved Foods List. With this addition, half of all state WIC programs plus the District of Colombia now offer cage-free egg options.
What is WIC?
WIC is a government assistance program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that offers tailored redeemable food packages to low-income pre- and post-partum women, infants, and children up to age five. Unlike the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which has few purchasing restrictions, the WIC program only allows specific food items and brands to be purchased with its benefits based on the nutritional quality of the product in relation to infant, child, and pre- and post-partum nutrient needs. While the WIC program offers very few meat options (only in some baby foods), eggs are a cornerstone of the program's offerings because they are rich in protein, Vitamin E, and Vitamins B12, B2, and B5, which facilitate healthy growth.
There are 89 WIC agencies in total, which include all 50 states, five US territories, Washington DC, and 33 relatively small tribal programs. In 2022, the program served over 6.2 million American women and their children.
WIC's Cage-Free Journey
Over 60% of participants enrolled in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) now have access to cage-free eggs using their benefits, thanks to updates in 25 states and the District of Columbia over the last several years. Reaching critical mass at the state level is a significant victory, signaling an inflection point in the program’s attitudes toward and acceptance of cage-free eggs. Four state agencies, Utah, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, and Florida, added cage-free eggs this fall alone. Moreover, the nation's three largest WIC programs, California, Texas, and Florida, now allow cage-free eggs (white eggs only in FL), pushing the total number of WIC participants with access to cage-free eggs well over half.
Historically, the key reason why cage-free eggs were left off of WIC's approved foods lists was cost. In an effort to serve as many participants as possible on a limited budget, WIC agencies only allowed the lowest-cost egg options for redemption with WIC benefits, which meant participants were relegated to reaching for low-welfare options produced by hens living in battery cages. However, the price of cage-free eggs has become more in sync with that of their cage-produced counterparts in recent years. While cage-free eggs cost about $1.79 more than cage-produced eggs in 2016, the price difference in 2022 was only $0.57. In addition, external factors such as underparticipation in the program have left some WIC agencies with a surplus of funds, presenting an opportunity to incorporate previously out-of-reach foods that are both in line with WIC nutritional standards and provide improved satisfaction to participants
A Changing Industry
The drop in price is the result of the increasing scale of cage-free production, with every one-in-three eggs nationwide now produced cage-free. Cal-Maine, the largest egg producer in the country, announced last summer that it would invest another $165 million to convert more of its hen houses into cage-free housing through 2025, transitioning approximately 940 billion eggs to the cage-free market annually. The sustainability and animal welfare-focused Dutch company Kipster also opened its first hen house in the US and began selling its eggs at grocery stores this month, and anticipates adding roughly another 30 million cage-free eggs annually. The total number of US egg-producing hens living cage-free now stands at over 106 million, which is 34% of the total egg-laying flock today compared to just 10% of hens living cage-free in 2016.
The cage-free transition was originally spurred by consumer and corporate demand. Over 230 companies across the country have publicly committed to sourcing 100% cage-free eggs since the mid-2010s, including those in hospitality, retail, and food service. About 100 of those companies are retailers and grocers, including many that make up the roughly 40,000 WIC-authorized vendor locations that the program relies on to serve its participants. With key WIC vendors such as Target, Meijer, Publix, H-E-B, and more committing to cage-free, and many of them steamrolling ahead on progress, it is imperative that WIC programs approve cage-free options before its participants are shut out at stores. Major WIC vendors Target and Publix reported in this year’s EggTrack that 57% of their offerings are cage-free, and other retailers such as Raley's have already fully transitioned to 100% cage-free offerings. Without each WIC agency’s approval of cage-free options, retailers are left in a Catch-22—they must either shut out WIC participants from buying eggs at their store or break their promise on going 100% cage-free
After a tumultuous pandemic, agencies are finding that staying ahead of the game is key to best serving their participants, and expanding egg offerings to include cage-free options provides just the kind of resilience the program needs. Several agencies have found that adding cage-free eggs has made shopping easier for their participants as cage-produced, WIC approved options become increasingly harder to find. Adding another egg option has also helped some agencies ride out market volatility and limited in-store availability, caused by both the pandemic and the avian influenza outbreak.
With a renewed focus on equity, balance, and choice, the WIC program’s uptake of cage-free eggs marks a new era for the program. The USDA’s recently released its long-awaited proposed updates to the WIC food packages, many of which reflect the program’s new focus on modernization. For instance, the proposed updates include adding culturally relevant grain options such as quinoa and naan, expanding the types of approved fruits and vegetables, and allowing participants to substitute soy-based yogurts and cheeses for dairy milk. While these changes apply across the board, however, it is still up to each of the 89 agencies to decide whether they include cage-free eggs (as well as free-range, pasture-raised, and organic) eggs to their approved foods. Including cage-free eggs not only offers practical benefits to the WIC program, but it empowers its participants to choose products that reflect their values and enables them to support higher welfare farming.
In all, adding cage-free egg options to WIC is a triple win for laying hens, WIC participants, and WIC vendors. To see if your state WIC program includes cage-free eggs, see CIWF’s WIC map.