Anyone who’s used the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Supplemental Nutrition Program – a state program designed to help pay for groceries for low-income families – has experienced the distress that comes with getting your food at the grocery store and standing in line at the check-out, only to realize that some of the items you picked aren’t covered by your benefits. So you ask to exchange the items, feeling a wave of embarrassment as you hold up the line of people impatiently waiting behind you.
That’s where Jessica Conde Rebholtz, owner of Parent’s Nutrition Center, comes in. Her business, located 1125 Summer Street in Eureka, takes the guesswork out of shopping on WIC by stocking only items that are covered by the program.
Rebholtz, a mother of three, came up with the idea to start a WIC store in Eureka about six years ago, after having her own humiliating experience. She was in line at Winco using her WIC checks to purchase her food and the woman behind her said something like, “Ugh. I hate being in line behind these people.” Though it certainly wasn’t the first time Rebholtz had experienced judgment in the check-out line, this time she didn’t want to let it go. She responded to the woman, “What do you mean ‘these people’?” And the situation dissolved into an embarrassing confrontation that stuck with Rebholtz.
“It just left a sour taste in my mouth,” Rebholtz told the Outpost during an interview at her shop on Tuesday. “I started being more self-conscious and wouldn’t shop at times I knew there would be a long line…I would literally get butterflies standing in line. I was embarrassed and didn’t want to be humiliated again.”
Following her confrontation, Rebholtz called her mother in tears to tell her about the experience. Her mom, who lives in Los Angeles, responded, “Why don’t you just shop at the WIC store?” WIC-only stores are fairly common in LA, but none existed here. The next time Rebholtz was visiting LA, she asked her mom to take her to one of the WIC stores. She absolutely loved it and knew she needed to open her own store here in Humboldt.
Rebholtz contemplated her dream over the next several years, while continuing to work at her longtime teaching job with the University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE). When COVID hit, Rebholtz was pregnant with her third child and she was having a hard time finding childcare for her two kids, while she continued to teach over Zoom. She felt like it might be the right time to focus on opening the store and, with her husband’s support, Rebholtz left her teaching position.
First she needed to find a space, and after some searching, the couple landed on a small space at the Bayshore Mall. Then they had to get the licensing to be able to accept WIC and EBT (food stamps), a process that usually takes up to six months. Of course, in COVID times this process took even longer, and after signing a lease on the Bayshore Mall space in July 2021, Rebholtz officially opened her doors in April, 2022.
After just a few months in the food court section of the mall, the lease was already up and Rebholtz felt that it would be better to move into a larger space where she could stock more inventory. She did get pretty good business at the mall, but said that the biggest feedback she got from her customers was that they wished the shop wasn’t so “out in the open” and Rebholtz felt that a more private location would also be beneficial. After again searching for a space for a while, Rebholtz reopened Parent’s Nutrition Center on Summer Street in February of this year.
In case you are not one of the nearly 2,600 residents of Humboldt County who receive WIC benefits, let this reporter/mama explain how it works. WIC provides benefits for income-eligible pregnant women, new parents, babies and children up to age five, which comes in the form of a monthly credit for staple food items that you can purchase from certain grocers using your WIC-issued card. The amount and types of items covered varies depending on a family’s size/needs, but generally you can purchase things like eggs, cheese, bread, cereal, juice, milk and baby formula. Aside from the fruits and vegetables credit, which is issued as a dollar amount, the credit covers a set size or weight of food items. For example, for my four-year-old daughter, we receive $26 worth of produce, 16 ounces of cheese, two and a half gallons of milk and one dozen eggs, among other items, each month.
Now here is where things get tricky! Not every type, size or brand of these items are WIC-eligible. For example, if you get 32 ounces of “whole grains” per month — which can be used for things like whole wheat bread, brown rice or corn tortillas — you can only buy these things in 16-ounce packages. At least locally, there is only one kind of whole wheat bread that’s available in 16 ounces and it is often sold out at local grocery stores. Eggs are also complicated. They can only be cage-free, white, large eggs (not extra large or jumbo, they MUST be large.) Most grocers only carry one type of large, white, cage-free eggs and they are also often sold out.
And although many stores label their WIC items, things are often mislabeled or out-of-date. So you might grab something that has a WIC label on the shelf underneath it, only to get to the register and learn that it is not actually covered. WIC used to issue paper checks and you had to pay separately for your WIC items and non-WIC items, making the check-out process longer and more frustrating. With the newer WIC card, the process is simpler, but you often don’t realize that some items weren’t covered until after you pay and get your receipt. There is also a handy WIC app for your phone that tells you what items you still have available and what types/ brands are covered, but it isn’t always accurate. There is even an option to scan items using the app, to see if they are WIC-approved, but it does not always work.
At Parent’s Nutrition Center, Rebholtz helps ease the frustration by guiding customers through the entire process. After being greeted by Rebholtz, she’ll first swipe your WIC card and print out a receipt showing exactly what items you have available. She then goes through each shelf, asking which items you would like and bagging them up for you. After you’ve gotten everything you need, Rebholtz swipes your card again to pay and you are on your merry way, without any growing line of impatient customers behind you.
Providing this level of attention and service has been especially helpful for certain customers, Rebholtz said, including folks who are new to WIC, people with disabilities or people who don’t speak English as their first language. Rebholtz and her one other employee are both Spanish-speaking, and if someone doesn’t speak English or Spanish, she can communicate with them using hand motions.
“I have a non-hearing, non verbal customer who comes in and her daughter said, ‘We can’t do this at a bigger store because she can’t communicate,’” Rebholtz said.
Rebholtz also prides herself in helping customers “get the most out of their benefits,” by guiding them to the items and combinations of items that will use up their entire allotted amount and not end up with some funky WIC balance that won’t cover anything. She also makes sure to carry as many options as she can. Most stores only have two or three juice flavors that are covered, but Rebholtz carries 10! She also makes sure to stock less common items like canned hominy, something that many people don’t realize is covered by WIC, and is also very popular with her Latino customers “I can’t keep it on the shelves,” she said.
Another way Rebholtz helps her customers is by writing down recipes for cooking some of the items that people might not know how to cook, while also helping them find different, delicious ways to use their free groceries. She is currently working to establish the store’s Youtube channel, where she plans to share cooking tips and recipes and important WIC information.
As her business grows, Rebholtz hopes to open more locations throughout Humboldt to help people shop with WIC in our rural area. But for now, she just really wants people to know that her store is here and open. (Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.)
To be clear, you don’t have to use WIC to shop at Parent’s Nutrition Center and the store also accepts EBT, cash and credit. But the point of the store is to ease the shopping process for those using WIC benefits.
“We’re here to provide extra help,” Rebholtz said. “I just want to provide a safe space where [people] don’t have to feel like a nuisance.”