A Researcher’s Story on Uncovering the Truth Behind WIC

As I write this in January 2024, Congress just passed a spending bill that will keep the government open until March, with another spending crisis on the near horizon. Due to unprecedented political polarization and, quite frankly, petty politicking, this has become the new normal, and as a congressional staffer, I have been monitoring these debates and analyzing their effects on the American people. Simultaneously, during the first wave of spending crises, I was working on research uncovering and substantiating the role of former Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-New York) in creating the Special Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants, and Children, also known as WIC. Heralded as one of the most successful and effective nutrition assistance programs in history, WIC serves half of all infants born in the U.S. and feeds over 6 million participants a month. With the looming spending crises, recent projections show that if Congress does not fully fund WIC in the 2024 fiscal year, nearly 2 million parents and children will lose WIC benefits by September (Bergh 2023). Telling the story of Chisholm’s role in creating WIC is more important now than it has ever been, as WIC has come under attack.

In February 2022, during the observance of Black History Month in the U.S., I found a social media post on Twitter posted by No Kid Hungry, an advocacy and lobbying group with a clear mission statement on their “What We Do” page:

Helping Communities Feed Kids. Every kid needs three meals a day to grow up healthy, happy, and strong. But today in America, too many children are missing those meals. The good news? This is a problem we know how to solve. (No Kid Hungry 2023)

This Twitter post linked to a blog post: “DYK [Did You Know]. Shirley Chisholm: Making History in Service” (No Kid Hungry 2021). The blog post’s purpose was to “highlight Black individuals who have fought to feed kids,” and it introduced the fact that Shirley Chisholm was the first Black woman in Congress and the architect of WIC, a federal program that offers healthy foods for children 0-5 and pregnant women, as well as nutrition education, counseling and referrals to local health and welfare agencies. (No Kid Hungry 2021). At the time I read this post, especially as a congressional staffer covering nutrition issues, I knew of Chisholm, and I certainly knew about WIC, but this was the first I heard of Chisholm’s involvement as “the architect of WIC.”

This claim about Chisholm’s role started me on a search that turned into the topic of my master’s thesis in sociology at the George Washington University, and allowed me a full opportunity to use my sociology training in my work. That training taught me analytic tools that I use here to reexamine legislative history and to create narratives accessible to a broad audience.Recent statistics estimate that over 30 million Americans, including 9 million children, are hungry (Feeding America 2023). This definition does not include measures of food insecurity (defined differently), which estimates that nearly a quarter of American adults are food insecure, which would total over 85 million Americans (Martinchek et al 2023). This problem was exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. And this problem remains almost unchanged from the 1960s, when former Sen. George McGovern (D-South Dakota) first helped to set hunger in America on the nation’s agenda. My research argues that the inability to solve issues of food/nutrition insecurity and hunger in American politics is a choice. We have the resources to not only feed every American but also to guarantee that every American has access to food that is nutritionally sound. But we choose not to do so. One of the reasons this choice is made is because of the stigmatizing narratives American society has regarding government welfare programs and the question of who deserves to be helped.

I seek to reveal this “choice” through a comparative analysis of two stories of the creation of WIC. The WIC program was officially piloted as a supplemental nutrition assistance program in 1972 and is one of the most successful food assistance programs in the United States.  Its goal was to improve the health of low-income pregnant women and mothers and their children up to the age of five. I open the research project with a summary of how the concern about hunger emerged in the 1960s and how it was interpreted differently based on perception.  This study of perception is done through the lens of what sociology understands as “standpoint theory,” the view that perception differs based on socioeconomic status, especially factors of race and class. It is one of the tenets of critical race theory (CRT), a key tool in my methods.

My use of standpoint epistemology reveals that the work in the 1960s that led up to the creation of WIC–and WIC itself–would not have been able to cross the finish line without the sponsorship of Chisholm. The recovery of the work of Chisholm in the creation of WIC is the guiding purpose of my research. My research is guided by the overarching question “why and how was Chisholm excluded from the common narrative of the legislative history of the WIC program?,”  and explores its ancillary questions. Was it because of her constituency? Was it to save herself politically if WIC failed? Was it because she was a Black woman, and the stigma of welfare could hurt WIC? Was it her alignment with the Black Panther Party? This project is necessarily interdisciplinary in nature, allowing sociological theory, political science, and analysis of primary documents (history) to meet.

The project is a qualitative study that employs a comparative discourse analysis. The guiding lens in choosing documents for analysis is CRT, the academic framework “that denotes that systemic racism is part of American society … [and] recognizes that racism is more than the result of individual bias and prejudice” (Legal Defense Fund 2023). CRT also recognizes “qualitative methods of storytelling, interview, fictional stories, biographies, family histories, and personal narratives as legitimate and crucial to identifying the origins of racial injustices” (Brown 2023). Using CRT to guide my qualitative method allowed me to pick a series of qualifying documents for comparative analysis. The analytical lens in examining the documents is sociologist Patricia Hill Collins’s concept of controlling images, which she defines as the product of intersecting oppressions of race, class, gender, and sexuality that needed “powerful ideological justifications for their existence” (Hill Collins 2000:70). Collins uses the concept of controlling images to explain how “the enslaved African woman became the basis for the definition of our society’s other” (Ibid.).

There are two “stories” that I comparatively analyzed: the story of WIC as the common legislative history recalls (Story One), and the story of WIC as the common legislative history does not recall (Story Two). These primary sources, in conjunction with other secondary sources for corroboration, craft two different stories of the legislative history of WIC, with completely different actors. To interpret the findings of the discourse analysis, I used Black Feminist Thought (BFT), another concept coined by Collins. Similar to CRT, Collins posits that “in developing a Black feminist praxis, standpoint theory has provided one important source of analytical guidance and intellectual legitimation for African-American women” (Hill Collins 2006:205).

The findings were telling. I came to the conclusion that Chisholm was written out of the formal legislative history of WIC because (a) of the political risk of formally attaching a Black woman’s name to the most successful nutrition assistance program in the country; and (b) Chisholm was outspoken on issues that did not fit into the political criteria and the political agenda of the American government at the time.

The purpose of my research is not to reveal that one story is “better” than the other, but rather to display that the story of WIC is greater than what we know it, and involves Black women–not just as recipients, but as policy architects. My point here in this brief overview of my work is a methodological one–the need to use a variety of strategies in our quest for the facts of the case under investigation.


Bergh, Katie, Lauren Hall and Zoe Neuberger. December 2023. “About 2 Million Parents and Young Children Could Be Turned Away From WIC by September Without Full Funding.” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. https://www.cbpp.org/research/food-assistance/about-2-million-parents-and-young-children-could-be-turned-away-from-wic

“Critical Race Theory FAQ.” Legal Defense Fund, 19 January 2023, www.naacpldf.org/critical-race-theory-faq/.

Hill Collins, Patricia. 2000. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. 2d ed. New York: Routledge.

Patricia Hill Collins. 2006. “Some Group Matters: Intersectionality, Situated Standpoints, and Black Feminist Thought.” Pp. 205–29 in A Companion to African‐American Philosophy, edited by T. L. Lott and J. P. Pittman. Wiley.

“Hunger in America.” Feeding America, www.feedingamerica.org/hunger-in-america. Accessed 19 January 2024.

Martinchek, Kassandra, Poonam Gupta, Michael Karpman, and Dulce Gonzalez. 2023. As Inflation Squeezed Family Budgets, Food Insecurity Increased between 2021 and 2022: Findings from the Well-Being and Basic Needs Survey. Urban Institute.

By Raina Hackett

Return to February 2024 Issue

One comment on “A Researcher’s Story on Uncovering the Truth Behind WIC

  1. Rhonda Hicks-Smith on

    So proud of your commitment to shining light on such an important program and lifting up such an amazing woman for her dedication to this cause.

    Rhonda Hicks-Smith


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