By Rebecca Oran

This is part of a series of posts on behavioral science and COVID-19Click here to read about some of the most important behaviors during this pandemic—like healthy distancing and seeking medical help, and responding to humanitarian crises in a global outbreak.

Social distancing guidelines in the U.S. have been extended through the end of April as a means to slow the spread of COVID-19. Governors have urged residents to stay at home. Restaurants, bars, movie theatres, and gyms are closed in most states. Of course, providers selling essentials, like grocery stores, remain open. In spite of that, in recent weeks as people became more worried about the pandemic and the potential for limiting access to supplies in the future, a phenomenon swept the nation: panic buying. Toilet paper flew off the shelves, frozen food cases lay barren, and to this day grocery stores can hardly keep up with restocking.

This is at minimum an annoyance for all of us as we strive to stay safe and fed in a stressful time. However, not all Americans are impacted equally by the fallout from panic buying—many low-income individuals in the United States face additional hurdles to feeding their families during the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of the more pernicious consequences of consumers’ panic buying, hoarding, and the resulting empty shelves is disproportionately felt by participants in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). The program provides food benefits to low-income pregnant, postpartum, and breastfeeding women, as well as infants and children up to the age of five. A feature of the program that has become particularly salient in recent weeks is that within several food categories, WIC specifies which brands and quantities of products people can buy. Participants are only able to buy with their benefits the items that are listed in their food package.

Although the food packages—lists of WIC-eligible items that participants can buy—vary among states, participants typically can use WIC to purchase things like canned items, milk, eggs, cheese, cereal, baby foods, formula, fruits and vegetables.

  1. Cut the strings.

Resources, such as time and money, provide a cushion to fall back on when life is thrown out of equilibrium. In our previous work, we have defined this cushion as “slack.” Loosening requirements, or cutting the strings, is an effective way to provide slack. In this case, a clear way to create slack for families is to allow them to use WIC benefits for a broader set of food items.

Many states have already started to apply for federal waivers for replacement items to the food package. These waivers allow WIC participants to substitute items, providing more flexibility when existing WIC-approved items are sold out. States that have not submitted a substitution waiver already should do so right away to avoid disruption for WIC participants.

In the meantime, there are other rapid, behaviorally informed changes below that can ease shopping for participants until the waivers are put into practice.

  1. Communicate clear, actionable guidance to WIC participants and all other shoppers.

People who have never used the WIC program may not be aware of purchasing restrictions and how their own preference-based shopping could impact the ability of other families to access the food they need. They are also panicked and have many different communications competing for their attention. Vendors have a role to play in communicating information about WIC to all shoppers.

One way to do this is to put up signage at the front of stores and at checkout to reassure the public that shelves are being restocked and remind them to look out for others in their community. A successful message will be clear, actionable, and timely and will make the benefits of action salient, such as noting that leaving WIC-approved items on the shelves helps everyone get the food they need. The sign could also include an image of a WIC “shelf talker,” or the labels that are typically placed on shelves next to WIC-approved items to identify them. It is important that the sign reminds customers more broadly that supply chains have not been significantly impacted in order to alleviate a sense of a depletion of resources, or scarcity, which can prompt people to buy more than they need.

  • Government entities should also make sure their communication is clear and actionable when communicating any changes to the food package to participants.
  • Messaging should avoid unfamiliar terminology, technical jargon, and overwhelming people with too much information at once.
  • Even though it is tempting to overcommunicate, providing the most important information first and then following up with additional, less urgent details later will help participants who already have their attention pulled in many different directions right now.

One final tip: The more people have to work to understand a message, the less effective the message is. When crafting communication, it is important for vendors and government entities to consider both the amount of information conveyed and the timing of the delivery.   

  1. Change the physical environment.

When participants are already pressed for time and worried about finances, small changes to their shopping environment could make it easier to access WIC-approved food. In response to panic buying and healthy distancing guidelines, grocery stores across the country have designated specific shopping hours for older adults, pregnant women, and people with health conditions.

  • Stores could include other vulnerable populations, such as WIC participants, during these designated hours or set aside separate hours for low-income individuals.
  • Another measure that could help is setting aside some non-perishable WIC-approved items (i.e., canned goods, cereal, formula) at a designated location in the store or at the customer service desk.

What about moving from physical store to online ordering?

  • Government entities could increase accessibility by introducing synergies between programs. At this time, several retailers are now accepting SNAP benefits online as part of the SNAP Online Purchasing Pilot. The possibility of online ordering should be further explored for WIC as well.
  • As more states move from WIC vouchers to Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards, online ordering is potentially more feasible and would be a worthwhile pilot to explore. Allowing WIC participants to shop online would allow them to filter by brand and quantity as well as provide them with a wider selection of foods when their local stores are out of certain items. In addition to the tangible benefits, allowing participants to order items online would also reduce the stigma of participating in WIC.

While this is unquestionably an uncertain time for everyone, it’s important to ensure that basic needs are still met for all Americans. It’s more crucial than ever that WIC participants are able to continue feeding their families using their benefits, and even as consumers are made more aware of the unintended consequences of their panic-buying on others, grocery stores and government entities have a role to play in making sure that happens.

Implementing these recommendations can help to ensure that panic buying does not lead to food insecurity for millions of Americans as they navigate their way through the other ambiguities and stressors of the COVID-19 pandemic.