Changes to WIC program pose challenges for Somali grocers

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Abdi Gurbis, Manager at Fresh and Green Produce Market in Tukwila, points out inventory on shelves. (Photo by Anna Goren)

At SeaTac Produce in Tukwila, Amira Abdulle cheerily greets customers along with her sons, who help to warm sambusas sold in the front case at the register. After shadowing her mother, Sahra, at the Tabarak minimart for nearly 10 years, Abdulle jumped at the opportunity to lease the space next door when a former casino became vacant.

The store is nearly five times the size of the minimart, and Abdulle stocked the shelves with what customers asked for: Somali spices, 5-pound bags of rice, produce, cooking supplies, furniture and religious paraphernalia. Noticing that people needed a place to come and pray and eat in the middle of the day, she turned the back of the store into a low-key restaurant and prayer hall, where kids play beneath a sign — Refreshment center of the universe.

SeaTac Produce doesn’t cash checks from the state Women, Infant and Child Nutrition Program, commonly called WIC.

Asked why, Abdulle shrugged.

“With my mother, I saw it wasn’t going so well,” she said.

Abdulle says the regulations are quite strict. “I didn’t want to go through the same stress.”

Does she hope those regulations will change? “Inshallah.”

King County has been home to some of the most innovate community food and public health programs in the country. Federally funded programs like Healthy Foods Here and partnerships between the city of Seattle and the Seattle Women’s Commission were out-of-the-box examples of governments empowering diverse communities with the tools food access. Access, after all, is what programs like WIC are all about, right?

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Rose water, a common ingredient in Somali households, sold at SeaTac Produce in Tukwila. (Photo by Anna Goren)

Changes in requirements

Starting on April 1, the Washington State Department of Health, which oversees the WIC program to contracted grocers across the state, will be enforcing updated requirements for its vendors. Business owners and others are concerned that the changes and regulations, announced in November, are pushing Somali grocery stores out of the program, and in the worst cases, out of business.

Here’s how the WIC program works: Stores around the state are contracted to accept WIC vouchers. These vouchers are redeemable for specific, pre-approved items targeted at improving health access to low-income mothers and their children.

The program is effective – it has been proven to reduce gaps in infant mortality and maternal health for its low-income participants. But it is notoriously complex to manage. Contracted stores must keep track of the WIC requirements and maintain a paper trail for checks, in addition to SNAP (food stamps) and general sales.

The new list of proposed state changes, however, include stocking 20 varieties of canned foods, 10 varieties of bread products, and a slew of non-food items like diapers, cleaning supplies, and health products – encouraging WIC participants to benefit from a “one-stop-shop” experience. These are items not always carried by small Somali businesses.

According to Tammy Morales, the Strategic Director of Food Systems Prosperity for the consulting firm Urban Food Link, the changes reflect a shift to a preference for big-box vendors, putting small ethnic grocers at a disadvantage.

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The frozen meat section at Fresh and Green Produce Market. Stipulations around meat and fish were some of the recent changes to inventory requirements that become effective April 1st. (Photo by Anna Goren)

“Safeway, by virtue of its size, technically serves more members of the community,” she says. “That theory might be true, but when you’re talking about a specific cultural food need, there could have been room for a broader definition of a grocery store.

For small stores, these inventory changes are costly and don’t necessarily reflect the products that specific communities will buy, she added.

Shukri Olow, a Somali community builder at Neighborhood House in the High Point community, shops for general goods at Costco and Safeway. But Olow can’t imagine not having a Somali grocer to provide hard-to-find items like goat meat or injera. You won’t find people dropping their kids off, bringing in documents for translation, or gathering for prayer in the back room at Safeway, either.

The changes come with a more stringent auditing process that the Somali community claims has disproportionately targeted their stores. This past year, 13 vendors statewide have had their WIC authorization revoked, almost all of them Somali. More are expected to lose their WIC status after the changes take place.

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Somali grocers Abdi Mohamed and Sahra Abdulle discuss their concerns with SeaTac Mayor and 33rd District Representative Mia Gregerson last year. (Photo courtesy Mohamud Yussuf)

Between that and the restriction on Somali remittances, the audits are salt in the wounds of a community who, after fleeing a country ravaged by war, face disproportionately high rates of poverty and food-related health problems, like diabetes and hypertension.

Failure to comply with stocking requirements can result in fees of up to $10,000, plus $1,000 per WIC check violation. According to Olow, these punitive fines may be manageable for a large grocery, but can make or break small stores eligibility for the program.

“These small businesses, they are basically trying to survive,” she says, noting that many Somali grocers open businesses with their savings, with religious law preventing them from taking out a loan.

It’s not that the Department of Health is purposely trying to put anyone out of business, she says. But the restrictive measures aren’t helping.

Advocates like Olow and Morales have been pushing for a training and education model, which have been successful in WIC programs across the country. They posit that food access and health are inseparable from issues of culture and economic development, and aim to help with some of the cultural gaps between ethnic groceries and government bodies. Though Morales and Kara Martin laid the groundwork for a training program geared at small grocery store owners in 2013, no one has stepped up to fund it.

You want them to ask “here are our findings, now how can we support you? What are you struggling with?” said Olow. “I just don’t think that’s the angle.”

Janet Charles, the Director of Nutrition Services at the Department of Health, says holding business development workshops is not realistic. Still, she acknowledged that small stores, while valuable to the community, can face many challenges with all the WIC processes.

“Having all that paperwork is not necessarily something a small store needs to be organized around,” she says.

But at the end of the day, rules are rules.

“We got to a point where we had to say, this is the rule you need to meet, and that’s all we can do to help you.”

Charles said that stores could carry on providing their services without accepting WIC checks. But community members have made clear, through organized meetings with the Department of Health and OneAmerica, that the program is a priority.

Charles says that the Somali community is not being targeted. She noted that the requirements have been met by dozens of Asian and Hispanic grocery stores, and that the Department of Health has accounted for translated materials, face-to-face training, and application extensions.

Stores are not getting shut down “for not having a few jars on the shelves,” she says.

Monitoring of programs, she explained, was federally mandated when problems with WIC fraud and high pricing were uncovered in California in 2011. Since then, the state Department of Health has used a complex algorithm based on redemption patterns in each store, aimed at weeding out “high-risk” fraud.

Though community members have asked for more details on how stores are selected for audit, Charles says that the information isn’t public.

Abdi Mohamed Gurbis, Manager at Fresh and Green Produce Market in Tukwila, was audited in 2012. When he was unable to account for $3,000 of $100,000 in WIC checks, the Department of Health offered to keep the program if the store paid the difference back, in exchange for additional training. The store complied, but after a few months, the Department of Health revoked its position and terminated the contract.

Gurbis hired a lawyer to contest the issue, but is still not able to accept WIC checks.

Community members fear that the changes will result in fewer at-risk women on the WIC program. The Safeways of the world, says Olow, are just too overwhelming for shoppers who will go where they are comfortable

With April 1 around the corner, the rules do not appear to be bending, though the Department of Health is conducting focus groups across the state to assess the impact of the regulations..

Somali store owners are moving towards applying for extensions, changing their inventory or getting off the program entirely.

“We never wanted to cheat the system,” Gurbis said.

“We are hardworking people who pay our taxes. We never got a fair shot.”

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Abdi Gurbis, the manager at Fresh and Green Produce Market, says that his job is to stay competitive by offering multiple kinds of items to meet different community needs. In 2012, WIC accounted for 10 percent of his sales. (Photo by Anna Goren).