Access to healthy foods for pregnant New Jersey women and mothers of young children is expected to improve as part of a streamlined application process, state officials said Monday.

Grocery stores and other food retailers and bodegas can avoid being placed on a waiting list through an online application to be designated through the New Jersey Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC.

Acceptance into the program means stores can accept WIC vouchers, giving “thousands of families with greater access to healthy, nutritious foods,” New Jersey Health Commissioner Cathleen D. Bennett said. “An authorized retailer can accept WIC vouchers in exchange for food purchased by low-income families enrolled in the WIC program.”

A Press of Atlantic City special project, “Growing up Hungry,” examined food insecurity among South Jersey families. The four counties in The Press’ coverage area — Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and Ocean — have the highest rates in the state of children who lack access to healthy and nutritious foods, both in quality and quantity, according to the Feeding America organization.

For every six children in New Jersey, one struggles with hunger. There were more than 330,000 of those children in 2014.

WIC provides food, nutrition education and community support for income-eligible pregnant women as well as mothers of children up to 5 years old.

More than 280,000 women, infants and children up to age 5 receive WIC services at more than 100 local clinics throughout the state.

“The new Open Access Policy will make food shopping more convenient by increasing retail options and reducing shopping time and the need for public transportation,” Bennett said. “Greater neighborhood availability to WIC through corner stores and bodegas, in addition to large chain stores, makes it possible for WIC shoppers to redeem their vouchers closer to home.”

Interested retailers used to have to wait for acceptance based on an analysis of need and supply.

But a policy change approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture will let stores become WIC retailers regardless of what other WIC stores are in the region.

More than 300 stores on New Jersey’s waiting list were notified Monday they can now apply. There are currently more than 900 WIC retailers around the state.

Vendors must meet criteria regarding pricing, business hours and inventory, have a satisfactory sanitary record and a minimum retail space of 1,000 square feet.

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wkeough@pressofac.com

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