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Published: Saturday, 6/12/2004

WIC on the ropes

IT'S a scandal that has lasted for decades. The poor who depend on government nutrition programs use their vouchers in inner-city stores but pay much higher prices than full-service stores in outlying neighborhoods that they often can't get to. Since not many have a way to travel where food and prices are better, they become a captive, and victimized, market.

The small stores' high prices also hurt the federal government, and hence, all taxpayers, because residents who qualify for government backed-vouchers get less for the money in such stores.

This well-known problem persists because full-service stores have for the most part abandoned central cities. The dilemma is enriching the wrong people, thanks mainly to the biggest voucher program, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, commonly known as WIC.

This year, Congress appropriated $4.6 billion for WIC, which helps buy infant formula, juice, eggs, milk, cheese, cereal, and legumes for 7.7 million people each month. But unless Congress takes action, the government could pay more for WIC in the future. It supplies vouchers rather than cash.

Clearly, those WIC-only stores, such as Virginia Beach, Va.'s Healthy Kids store, take their lead from small, inner-city grocers' practice of charging customers more. Nationally, WIC stores charge from 10 percent to 20 percent above other supermarkets, and sometimes more.

A Virginia WIC spokesman said customers will find the prices at the stores as much as double the prices at Wal-Mart, Food Lion, or Kroger. The Texas Health Department said its WIC stores are among the most expensive in the nation, and a California study found that theirs charge 16 percent more for the basics: milk, eggs, and cheese.

The matter has generated bipartisan concern. The senior Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, Tom Harkin of Iowa, says the practice threatens attempts to control costs. The chairman of the subcommittee responsible for the appropriations, Republican Sen. Robert Bennett of Utah, frets about stores that charge more.

Lobbyists for WIC stores say the price disparities arise because they can't directly negotiate with manufacturers like other retailers. Meanwhile, customers say that WIC stores at least allow them to avoid the stigma of using the vouchers.

Both have a point. Nobody wants to embarrass the needy or keep businessmen from making a profit. But there's a difference between a fair profit and price-gouging exploitation, and Congress has a duty to stop it.

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