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By Colleen Quinn


STATE HOUSE — Poor women in Massachusetts who rely on federal assistance to buy milk, cereal and other specified food items for themselves and their children will no longer have to worry that everyone around them in the grocery store checkout line knows they receive aid.

Massachusetts this month began to switch from paper checks to debit-like cards for the federal nutritional assistance program that helps more than 125,000 women, infants and children in the state.

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, commonly known as WIC, serves nearly half of all Massachusetts infants, according to state public health officials. Nationwide, 53 percent of all infants born in the United States receive WIC benefits, according to the USDA.

Massachusetts is the first New England state to abandon the old paper check system before the federal government requires all states to make the switch by 2020. Nationwide, 14 states have moved to debit cards, making a change that advocates of the program say will eliminate the stigma of paying with paper vouchers.

The switch from checks to cards began Oct. 1, and will be finished in the state by the end of the month, according to state public health officials.

Under WIC, low to moderate income families with a child under five receive certain nutritional foods for free, such as baby foods, beans, whole grain bread, fruits and vegetables. WIC also provides access to health care and breastfeeding counseling. Benefits do not roll over each month, and people must buy the food during an allotted time frame before they expire.

Department of Public Health Commissioner Cheryl Bartlett – who oversees WIC for the state – said families who have already used the new cards love it, and feel it is a lot less stigmatizing. The cards were piloted in the Berkshires this summer.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of WIC, launched after a group of doctors told stories to USDA officials about pregnant women turning up in their offices with various ailments because of a lack of food. By 1974, WIC was operating in 45 states.

Approximately 8.6 million people across the nation received WIC benefits each month in fiscal year 2013, of which 4.6 million were children, 2 million infants, and 2 million women, according to the USDA.

Massachusetts is one of the six states that allocate state funds to WIC in addition to federal money. To be income eligible, a family’s income must fall at or below 185 percent of the U.S. poverty level, currently $44,123 for a family of four.

Bartlett said WIC has changed and evolved over the years. Forty years ago, its focus was providing subsidized formula to mothers. Today, its focus is on nutrition, health and wellness. Recently, program administrators have emphasized the dangers of obesity, and promoted breastfeeding as one way to prevent overweight babies, according to Bartlett.

Tania Evora is a breastfeeding peer counselor at the WIC program in Framingham. She holds classes for pregnant women to teach them the ins-and-outs of breastfeeding. Evora, who also receives WIC benefits, said she encourages women to try breastfeeding because it is healthier for a baby than formula. She calls new moms in the WIC program every week to see if they need advice or help breastfeeding their babies.

Other WIC counselors are looking forward to the new cards.

Before Heather Catledge became a state nutritionist for WIC, she received help from the program for more than two years when her daughter was a baby. She remembers the breastfeeding counseling, and the milk, eggs, cheese and cereal she was able to buy because of the program. “I thought it was the best thing since sliced bread, since my husband wasn’t working, and I was living with my parents,” she said.

Catledge said she never felt a stigma when she was on WIC, but she has seen grocery store cashiers unable to deal with the checks yell out “I got WIC on 6,” as the women at the register cringes.