TRANSPORTATION CHALLENGES are the biggest barrier Massachusetts residents face in applying for federal food assistance, according to a report released on Monday by state Auditor Suzanne Bump. 

Participation in the food assistance program, called the Special Supplemental Nutritional Program for Women, Infants, and Children, has fallen from 114,419 in 2016 to 108,593 at the end of 2018, a decline of 5 percent. The state audit suggested transportation hurdles may be contributing to the decline, although the Department of Public Health, which administers the so-called WIC program for the US Department of Agriculture, disputed that. 

The program allows Massachusetts residents that have a household income at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level to apply for an electronic benefit card that helps them buy food. In addition, it offers nutrition assessment and counseling, breastfeeding support, and referrals to health services. Children up to age five, and women in all states of pregnancy and six months postpartum can also take part in WIC.  

Participants can apply for food benefits online, but they also have to make in-person visits to one of the 120 service locations statewide to be weighed, have blood taken, receive nutritional counseling, and have their benefit card reloaded. For children up to 1 ½ years old, visits four times a year are required. 

There are 31 WIC providers managing 120 service locations statewide. Bump’s audit found Berkshire, Hampden, Hampshire, and Franklin counties all had areas where participants in the program were over 20 miles from the nearest service location. It also found issues around translation of some WIC application documents.  

Map showing WIC provider locations (Office of the State Auditor)

The nonprofit Community Action Pioneer Valley manages five service centers for the food assistance program on a part-time basis in Greenfield, Amherst, Northampton, Orange, and Belchertown. Claire Higgins, director of the organization, said her organization’s service centers are typically open a few days a week and staff scurry from office to office assisting clients. 

Pointing to a map in the auditor’s report showing where service centers are located, Higgins said some parts of the state have no service centers at all. “If you look at the deep dark blue sections of that map, that’s the western Hilltowns,” she saidWe don’t have any offices there, and we can’t afford to open any and pay staff.” 

Higgins said her organization is considering applying to the Department of Public Health for permission to establish mobile service centers, of which there are 14 in the state. Mobile centers are at already existing areas like hospitals and women’s homeless shelters, not permanent fixtures, but temporary.  

The Department of Public Health challenged the audit’s findings, saying that in a 2016/2017 WIC participant survey, 96 percent of respondents agreed with a statement saying locations are “easy to get to.” The office also said that some types of WIC appointments are available online and via phone, and that the agency “proactively identifies individuals eligible for WIC and provides resources in several languages.”  

Another portion of the report focused on issues related to language access as a barrier preventing individuals from receiving supplemental food assistance. The auditor’s office is asking DPH to provide improved translation of WIC documents and guides, noting that applications were available in only six of ten top languages used in the state. 

The audit covered the period from July 1, 2015, through December 31, 2017, and was initiated based on concerns from various groups about access to public food benefits.