Panel Paper: Retailer Proximity and Nutrition Program Redemptions: Evidence from the Summer EBT for Children Program

Thursday, November 8, 2018
Madison B - Mezz Level (Marriott Wardman Park)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Jane Furey, University of Michigan, Jacob Alex Klerman, Abt Associates, Inc. and Todd Grindal, SRI International

Redemption rates for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) are substantially higher than for the Special Nutrition Assistance Program for Women Infants and Children (WIC) (Castner and Henke, 2011). Although nearly all SNAP benefits are redeemed, a moderate share of WIC benefits go unredeemed.

Four major differences between the SNAP and WIC programs exist, which may account for the differences in redemption rates among WIC participants.

1: The WIC eligible population is demographically narrower and its income broader

2: The WIC benefit is smaller.

3: WIC can only be spent on a narrower set of foods.

4: WIC operates through a narrower retailer network.

In this paper, we use data from the Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer for Children (SEBTC) evaluation to examine how redemption varies with variation in retailer proximity (the fourth reason for SNAP/WIC difference in redemption rates), measured by the distance to the closest supermarket or superstore where participants could redeem benefits.


SEBTC provided nutritional assistance, in selected demonstration sites, to families with children eligible for free and reduced-priced school meals. In 2012, the year examined in this study, participating families received $60 of food assistance during each of three summer months. In some demonstration sites, benefits could be redeemed only via the WIC system while in others redemption was possible only via SNAP. Determinations of whether SEBTC would be administered via SNAP or WIC, though not random, were not based on retailer density or any other factors known to be associated with redemption. Thus, across SEBTC-SNAP and SEBTC-WIC sites, the individual eligibility conditions and the benefit amounts per eligible child are the same. This permits us to isolate the effect of the third and fourth sources of variation (i.e., more restricted choices of food and retailer proximity) for comparisons of redemption rates in SEBTC-SNAP and SEBTC-WIC.

This paper uses monthly benefit redemption data on 16,577 families in eight SNAP sites and 9,993 families in four WIC sites who received SEBTC benefits in 2012. We combine administrative records of household monthly redemption of SEBTC benefits, household addresses, and the addresses of WIC and SNAP retailers to examine the relationship between roadway distance to participating retailers and benefit redemption. Analyses are conducted using OLS regression.


For the 2012 SEBTC sites, this paper finds no consistent evidence of a relationship between redemption rates and retailer proximity. To the contrary, we find households often travel past the closest participating retailer to redeem their benefits. These findings are consistent with recent “food deserts” literature, which suggests correlations between retailer environment and nutritional outcomes are not causal. Rather than distance to the nearest retailer explaining lower WIC redemption rates, it appears that differences in redemption rates may be related to the restrictions on what foods can be redeemed with WIC.

For policy makers, these results call into question the efficacy of federal, state, and local efforts to increase participation in nutrition assistance programs through providing incentives for food retailers to locate in “food deserts”.

Full Paper: