Search icon

What is WIC?

Woman smiling while food shopping

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) provides federal grants to states, territories, and tribal nations for supplemental foods, health care referrals, and nutrition education for low-income pregnant and postpartum women, and to infants and children up to age five who are found to be at nutritional risk.  The program is overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and administered by state and local agencies. WIC temporarily provides income-eligible women with packages to buy foods with certain nutritional aspects, such as high iron or protein content, in accordance with their family's needs. 

Each state, territory, and tribal nation (89 in total) has its own approved foods list of which products participants can buy through the program. Historically, WIC agencies have explicitly prohibited participants from buying cage-free eggs because of higher costs and perceptions that cage-free eggs are a specialty item. However, several states have added cage-free eggs to their approved foods lists over recent years in response to cage-free legislation, decreasing costs, and supply shortages of conventional eggs.  

Find out if your state offers cage-free eggs to WIC recipients using our interactive map.

Why Cage-Free?

Laying hen standing behind chicken wire fence

The cage-free label ensures basic welfare needs are met. Egg-laying hens in battery cages are given space no larger than the size of a standard sheet of paper and just enough height to stand.  Therefore, birds in conventional caged systems do not have room to exercise or perform and natural behaviors, such as walking, running, flying, or fully spreading their wings. In addition to lack of space, battery cages do not provide hens with resources to perform natural behaviors, such as litter for dust-bathing, perches for resting, or material for nest-building.

Chickens in battery cages are also more likely to peck at other birds out of stress, boredom, or hunger, which can cause injury, feather loss, and in severe cases, mortality. Sick or injured hens in densely stocked cages can also suffer for prolonged periods without medical care because they are harder for workers to spot.

The total proportion of cage-free hens in the U.S. has tripled in the last five years, from 10% of the total egg-laying flock in 2016 to over 34% today. In addition, over 200 restaurants, retailers, and other food businesses have made commitments to transition to 100% cage-free eggs within the next several years, including retailers that WIC and its recipients highly depend on such as Target, Walmart, Publix, and Ahold Delhaize. 

Compassion USA and WIC

To create a truly just, sustainable transition to a cage-free future, all consumers—regardless of income—must be able to access more compassionate foods. As egg production increasingly shifts to cage-free as a result of consumer demand, state legislation, and retailer commitments, it is in the WIC program's best interest to prepare for a cage-free future. Compassion USA is committed to working with the WIC program, National WIC Association, and major retailers to ensure all WIC recipients can purchase cage-free eggs. 

Benefits of Adding Cage-Free

WIC agencies that have added cage-free eggs to their approved foods lists have cited several benefits, including: 

  • increased participant satisfaction 
  • increased redemption of benefits
  • improved vendor relationships 
  • additional point-of-purchase options 
  • easier shopping experience
  • ability to support local farmers 
  • increased flexibility with market changes 

Please download CIWF's Fact Sheet and Slide Deck for more information:

Which states offer cage-free eggs to WIC recipients?

To date, 24 state agencies (including the District of Columbia) allow WIC recipients to purchase cage-free eggs. To find out which WIC programs currently authorize the purchase of cage-free eggs, please use the interactive map below:

Get the latest news on WIC

Almost 4 million Americans now have access to cage-free eggs through WIC

Almost 4 million Americans now have access to cage-free eggs through WIC

Read more

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

Line graph depicting changes in egg prices from 2016 to 2022.
Source: USDA. "Shell Eggs: Weekly Retail Shell Egg and Egg Products Feature Activity Report."

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

Looking Forward

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. 


Allie Molinaro smiling at the camera wearing a black Compassion in World Farming t-shirt

As Campaign Manager, Allie Molinaro works to advance Compassion USA's state and federal policy work, thought leadership, and activist mobilization. She focuses her work on placing factory farming in a broader context, highlighting its impacts not only on animal welfare but also on pollution, climate change, public health, and social justice. Allie holds an M.S. in Environmental Policy and Sustainability Management from The New School and a B.S. in Environmental Science from the University of Connecticut.

 

DC and Hawai'i approve cage-free eggs for WIC recipients

DC and Hawai'i approve cage-free eggs for WIC recipients

Read more

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Programs for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) of Washington, D.C. and Hawai’i are the latest to approve cage-free eggs for purchase by participants. As of November 1st, 2021, all WIC participants in Hawai’i have the option to purchase cage-free eggs, and as of October 1st, 2021, all WIC participants in D.C. can buy cage-free, organic, and free-range eggs 

egg cartons on store shelves

WIC is a state-run, federally funded program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that provides supplemental nutrition for low-income women and their children. Cage-free eggs have historically been excluded from WIC approved food lists (AFLs) because they are viewed as a specialty product. However, as the nation’s supply chain increasingly transitions to cage-free (up from 10% in 2016 to 29% in 2022), WIC programs are changing to keep up. Programs in states that have passed legislation banning the sale and production of eggs from caged hens such as Oregon have updated their approved foods to ensure WIC participants still have access to eggs. Several grocery retailers with cage-free commitments have cited their participation in WIC as a barrier to meeting their goal, adding pressure on WIC agencies to expand their AFLs to include cage-free eggs. The pandemic has also prompted some WIC programs to approve cage-free eggs to compensate for conventional egg supply shortages. 

Chickens raised in battery cages spend their whole lives in crowded, barren conditions with less room than a standard sheet of paper. The cages are typically stacked several rows high in large, artificially lit buildings housing thousands of birds and provide no perches, bedding, or access to fresh air. 

Compassion in World Farming USA is working to help WIC agencies add more humane egg options to their approved food lists.  Over 2.4 million women and toddlers enrolled in WIC have access to cage-free eggs thanks to changes over the last few years, but more than 2.3 million still lack access. Adding cage-free eggs to more WIC programs could not only improve the lives of millions of hens but also increase food equity, ensuring that financial status is not a barrier to supporting more compassionate purchases. Compassion USA applauds Washington, D.C. and Hawai’i for taking this important step in food justice and animal welfare. 

To learn more about Compassion USA’s WIC and other policy work, see our public policy page.

OR, CO & More WIC Programs Authorize Cage-Free Eggs

OR, CO & More WIC Programs Authorize Cage-Free Eggs

Read more

To build a compassionate food system that doesn’t rely on exploitive factory farming, we must ensure a transition that allows everyone to participate—regardless of income. Thankfully, the movement to do just that is well underway!

Earlier this year, both the Oregon and Colorado Special Supplemental Nutrition Programs for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) updated their Approved Foods Lists (AFLs)—lists which specify which foods WIC recipients can purchase—to include cage-free eggs. That means that a combined 185,000+ consumers were granted access to more compassionate egg options. That’s a win for everyone!

Compassion USA initiated dialogue with both states, as well as presented at the National WIC Association Nutrition and Breastfeeding Conference, in 2020 and we are excited to see the programs expand their egg categories in alignment with over 200 major food businesses who have committed to source and sell exclusively cage-free eggs by 2025 and eight state legislatures.

But the fight for a cage-free future that’s inclusive to all still has a long way to go. As it stands, only 18 states authorize cage-free eggs—not including the six territory and 34 tribal programs. (See our Cage-free Eggs & WIC Tracker map.)

Not only is this an economic justice concern, but it’s also a logistical challenge for national retailers with cage-free commitments. Nearly every major US retailer that has a commitment to go 100% cage-free 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.

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 retailers and the WIC program to expand access to cage-free eggs.

For more information, please see our WIC & Cage-free Eggs Fact Sheet

If We Want to Go Cage-Free, We Need to Work with WIC

If We Want to Go Cage-Free, We Need to Work with WIC

Read more

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.

For more information, please see our WIC & Cage-free Eggs Fact Sheet

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.
Globe

You are using an outdated browser which we do not support. Please upgrade your browser to improve your experience and security.