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Parents Nutrition Center's Shame-free WIC Shopping

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It began with some old-fashioned check-out line rudeness. Jessica Rebholtz says she was using her WIC card to buy groceries, including infant formula she needed due to some lactation issues, when the woman behind her in line made a comment about how long her transaction was going to take and having to wait behind "these people." A self-described "proud Latina," Rebholtz asked what she meant by "these people." The ensuing verbal confrontation was both mortifying and galvanizing. "It's nice for her if she had never been on WIC and never had to be on WIC — good for her, but some of us struggle."

On the phone with her mother in Southern California, Rebholtz wished there was someplace she could shop for her family without being judged or stressed. Her mother replied there were shops in her area exclusively selling WIC items. Rebholtz visited one on her next trip and thought, "We need this in Humboldt County." Some seven years later, Rebholtz has opened the all-WIC shop Parents Nutrition Center in the food court of the Bayshore Mall.

WIC — the Women, Infants and Children Supplemental Nutrition Program — is meant to aid income-eligible pregnant women, new mothers (up to 1 year postpartum), babies, and children up to the age of 5, and those who qualify through Medi-Cal, Calfresh, CalWorks or Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, fathers, foster parents and guardians can also receive aid for children in their care. As of February, 2,566 Humboldt County residents were enrolled in the program, which offers monthly credit for staple items.

Under the WIC program, a toddler, for example, is allotted 16 ounces of cheese, a dozen eggs, one container of dry beans, 32 ounces of whole grains and $24 worth of fruits and vegetables (an increase that expires in September) per month, among other items. For many families, the food can be the difference between a healthy, stable diet and the food insecurity 2.3 million children face across the state, according to the Let's Get Healthy California website. But navigating these benefits can be cumbersome and stigmatized.

In the former takeout stall, decorated with balloons for Parents Nutrition Center's grand opening, there are more than 50 items, ranging from fresh produce to squeeze pouches of applesauce. Folks can swipe their WIC cards, see how much budget they have left for milk, cheese, eggs and other staples, and Rebholtz will bag them up to go. (Customers who don't use WIC can shop, too, paying in cash or credit.) The "pharmacy-style" set-up is one she saw working elsewhere and it allows her to be a one-person shop with a tiny footprint. And the all-WIC offerings mean customers can shop cashless and never worry about finding out at the register that the item has been mismarked on the shelf or is the wrong size for a WIC purchase. The list of WIC items is fairly specific, too: It covers canned tomatoes but not sauerkraut, and fresh produce but not nuts or dried fruit.

Getting the hang of the rules can mean some trial and error. That's a stressful situation Rebholtz is all too familiar with. "I used to get this hot sensation all through my body, hoping that everything works," she says. Instead, at Parents Nutrition Center, customers "come up to the front of my store, they swipe the card and we just go down the line," she says, tallying up how many gallons of milk or other items they have left on their account, with nobody tapping their foot behind them. "No more shame, no more blame."

Getting the shop set up and authorized to accept WIC payment took some doing, between government red tape, establishing a location before applying for a license and finding a point-of-sale system that would take WIC payment. But after losing her job during the pandemic, Rebholtz cashed in her 401k and took the plunge. As a community nutrition educator for University of California Cooperative Extension, she'd taught nutrition classes at middle schools, low-income facilities and resource centers around the county and knew how vital supplemental nutrition programs are. Rebholtz had also seen areas that were food deserts for those without vehicles, especially in terms of availability of WIC items. Eventually, she'd like to branch out to places like Orick, where she sees room for more options. "We don't even have a month's worth of sales but I'm already excited for the future."

For now, Rebholtz is getting the hang of set pricing requirements, how much stock she can move — she's required to stock some items, like milk and cheese, fruit and vegetables, cereal and eggs — and what her customers need. Messages and comments on the shop's Facebook page are peppered with requests for hard-to-find items, like lactose-free milk. She says she was contacted by a woman who was new to the area and having trouble tracking down infant formula made for babies born prematurely. It took a drive to San Jose, but Rebholtz stocked up enough to tide the new mother over for a few months.

For now, Rebholtz is the sole owner-operator of Parents Nutrition Center, which is open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday. But she's looking to hire someone to help cover shifts and give her a little more time with her three children and maybe even catch one of their baseball games.

"I'm here for everyone but especially for those moms that want to feel safe shopping for WIC items," says Rebholtz. "Maybe it will help inspire some mom to follow her dream. Because this was my dream."

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (she/her) is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or jennifer@northcoastjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.

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