Public Health says WIC program is underused

ALBANY -- One would think in an economic downturn that programs assisting low-income families would see an increase in usage.

Not necessarily.

Women, Infants and Children (WIC), a nutritional program that provides supplemental foods to eligible families, has experienced a drop in enrollment.

The 30-year-old program has 1,000 fewer participants in the Southwest Public Health District than this time last year. This is a trend that appears to be happening at a state and regional level as well, officials say.

"The state is looking at the situation to determine what is going on so we can figure out what we need to do," said Brenda Greene, deputy director of the Southwest Public Health District. "We certainly don't want a child's health status to decline because of bad economic times."

Officials are unsure what is causing the participation to dwindle, but the drop has caused them to work double-time to promote the program to at-risk families.

"We are actually sort of puzzled about this; we would have expected the numbers to go up," Greene said. "We want to make sure people are aware of the service. Because of changes in income, there may a lot of people that qualify."

The program's services include nutrition assessment, health screening, medical history, weight and height measurement, hemoglobin check, nutritional education, breast-feeding support and education as well as vouchers for food.

"The benefits of WIC have been demonstrated time and time again as to how it helps health status," Greene said. "We want children to get the (nutritional value) they need."

On the educational front, officials with the program assist pregnant women in maintaining healthy eating habits.

"We also promote breast-feeding and later provide other foods (for children when they get older)," Greene said.

WIC serves women and children in families with an income at or below 185 percent of the federally-defined poverty level, currently $40,793 for a family of four that is at risk for nutritional deficiencies. Categories include pregnant, postpartum and breast-feeding women, as well as infants and children up to age 5.

Anyone who participates in or has family using programs such as Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, automatically meets the income eligibility requirement.

Last year at this time, the district had 14,578 WIC enrollees. This year, that number is down to 13,541.

"Taking advantage of WIC can make a huge difference in participants' lives," said Southwest Public Health District Nutrition Services Director Teresa Graham. "Research shows WIC reduces fetal death and infant mortality and increases both birth weight rates and the duration of pregnancy."

The contents of an individual's food package may depend on certain criteria such as diet patterns or birth weight. For more information or to apply, residents in the district are encouraged to call their county health department.