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NMSU collaborates in new WIC point of sale system at Lowe’s Markets in Las Cruces

A collaboration of federal and state agencies, a grocery store chain and New Mexico State University researchers has produced a way to help participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children program maximize use of available supplemental benefits, including their cash-value benefits for authorized fruits and vegetables.

Packages of fruit and vegetables at checkout stand.
Fresh fruit and vegetables available at the checkout stand and a new point-of-sale computer program allows WIC participants quick, healthy options for remaining WIC funds. (Courtesy photo)

With the assistance of NMSU’s College of Business Consumer Behavior Lab, collaborators Lowe’s Market, New Mexico’s WIC agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have developed a new point-of-sale system that was launched April 11 at Lowe’s two Las Cruces stores.

Mihai Niculescu, co-director of the Consumer Behavior Lab, and Stephanie Rogus, assistant professor in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences’ Family and Consumer Sciences Department, spent several years working with the grocery chain in developing the new system. The study was funded by a USDA Economic Research Service grant.

“This collaboration is exciting,” said Rob Ybarra, Lowe’s director of marketing. “We have developed a win-win solution that is helping not only the WIC participants, but our other customers as well, to make healthy food choices at check out. Since starting this new system, sales of healthy items at our check stands has quadrupled.”

WIC provides federal grants to states for supplemental foods, health care referrals and nutrition education for low-income pregnant, breastfeeding and non-breastfeeding postpartum women, and to infants and children up to age 5 who are found to be at nutritional risk.

In New Mexico, participants access their WIC supplemental food package benefits using an electronic benefit transfer card. In addition to their supplemental food packages, women and children participants receive cash-value benefits in WIC to obtain authorized fruits and vegetables.

“WIC participants are given cards that are funded each month for the purchase of healthy food, especially fresh fruit and vegetables,” Niculescu said. “If they don’t use all of the funds by the end of the month, the remaining funds are removed from the card, when the next month’s credit is applied.”

The NMSU study found that WIC participants feel bad about starting a purchase transaction then discovering they could buy more fruits and vegetables when they get the receipt that shows the balance on their card.

“They have a choice to go back to the produce department for additional healthy food and then return to the checkout line,” Niculescu said. “But most of the time they just leave the store, and forfeit the money.”

Working with New Mexico’s WIC agency, Lowe’s Market redesigned its computerized system to allow cashiers to tell the WIC participant how much remains on their WIC card before the sales transaction is completed.

“This is a great example of using technology to try to enhance the effectiveness of USDA nutrition assistance programs – by making it easier for WIC shoppers to use all of their fruit and vegetable vouchers,” said Lisa Mancino, economist with USDA’s Economic Research Service and USDA’s co-investigator on the research project.

In addition, the store has located fresh fruit and vegetables at checkouts to allow the customer to easily use the remainder of their credit.

“This subtle change can make a big difference for WIC participants,” said Sarah Flores-Sievers, New Mexico WIC director. “Having healthy food within arm’s reach at the checkout counter makes it much easier for participants to use any amount of remaining funds on their benefit card no matter how small, without increasing wait times for everyone in line.”

“We had one common purpose – to give all customers the opportunity to make healthier choices,” Ybarra said. “Besides having the usual snack items available at the checkout line, now they have healthy choices for those quick purchase decisions. The increase in our sales demonstrates that when you give customers alternatives to eat healthier, often times they make healthier selections.”

Lowe’s Market is installing the new end-of-sale system in all of their 21 New Mexico stores in Las Cruces, Alamogordo, Tularosa, Eunice, Clovis, Belen, Gallup, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Las Vegas, Taos, Angel Fire, Chama and Raton. Lowe’s Pay & Save has 150 stores in Texas, New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas.