The Equity Factor

App Helps Low-Income Moms Stay Connected to Nutrition

“There’s an app for that” is becoming a more equitable catchphrase.

(Photo by Jim Henderson)

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When it comes to making “there’s an app for that” a more equitable catchphrase, progress continues. Last month I wrote about Easy Food Stamps, an app that hopes to assist low-income New Yorkers who apply for SNAP, the federal food assistance program. Now, across the country, in Seattle, developers at Mobile Benefits are also trying to make life easier for recipients of government aid. Their new app — it’s also their first — QuickWIC, is for people enrolled in WIC (Women, Infants, and Children), which supplements the nutrition of pregnant women, nursing moms, and infants and children up to age five.

Rather than focusing on the application process, as Easy Food Stamps does, QuickWIC is geared toward helping mothers already in the program to streamline and maximize WIC’s unique benefits.

“[Mothers] get assigned all of these benefits, and then they are set free in the grocery store with basically just a debit card and a brochure and are expected to buy all the right foods,” Mobile Benefits CEO Max Thayer says. “And it turns out it’s tremendously frustrating to do in practice, because only some brands are pre-approved for WIC. More often than not, a mother will take foods up to a cash register and then get the items rejected at point of sale. It can be an embarrassing and also a highly frustrating experience.”

QuickWIC has several features intended to empower WIC recipients: a page that tracks the progression of where mothers are in their allowance of benefits, a barcode scanner that shows them if a product is approved under the WIC program before check-out, educational information about nutrition, and a potential new chat mechanism to connect users with WIC agencies.

Not all of the app’s functionalities are built out just yet, but QuickWIC just announced the first group of users. “We’re trying to get an app in the marketplace and gain legitimacy before talking to the nation as a whole,” says Thayer.

There are 90 WIC offices; that number includes states, territories and independent tribal communities. Mobile Benefits has signed a three-year agreement with the Chickasaw Nation (based in Oklahoma), which has 4,000 women currently enrolled in WIC. During the commitment, Mobile Benefits agreed to provide maintenance and support for the app — no matter what happens with the tech tool. “Mobile is such a fast-shifting environment,” says Thayer. “WIC is also evolving, so we’re retained so that the app remains functional and is working for their needs.”

A representative from the Chickasaw Nation told Thayer that an estimated 80 percent of their WIC mothers had smartphones. That’s almost identical to the percentage of low-income Americans who are estimated to have smartphones, often as their primary connection to the web.

Mobile Benefits does not have any official partnerships with WIC agencies yet, but Thayer is hopeful that they are on the horizon. “Some of the agencies that are the most equipped seem really excited about the idea of using the app as a megaphone for their ideas. And some agencies are just looking for shopping tools. There’s a mix of responses.” QuickWIC will be built with interchangeable features that can be selected based on the needs of each agency.

Like Easy Food Stamps, there’s an inherent risk in promoting an app (that’s advertised to connect government assistance recipients with agencies) without a firm commitment on the part of the government. But Thayer says he doesn’t see how these state WIC agencies could say no to this chance to improve the experiences of the women enrolled in the program.

“In my mind, they have a small problem with outreach because they only get to see mothers at most four times a year. In my opinion, this is not enough to enforce their methods, so we’re offering them the opportunity to push messages to the phone as much as daily, weekly or monthly to share resources with a mother and reinforce the messages that they’ve been delivering in clinics for the last 40 years.”

The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

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Alexis Stephens was Next City’s 2014-2015 equitable cities fellow. She’s written about housing, pop culture, global music subcultures, and more for publications like Shelterforce, Rolling Stone, SPIN, and MTV Iggy. She has a B.A. in urban studies from Barnard College and an M.S. in historic preservation from the University of Pennsylvania.

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