WIC nutrition program more than just dietary assistance – Pueblo Chieftain
Brittany Arszman first became affiliated with the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) when she became pregnant with her first child.
She was a teenage mother, and her own mother suggested she look into the federal program, which is administered by the state and managed locally by the Pueblo City-County Health Department. Four children and more than a decade later, she has transitioned from WIC client to WIC educator — an employee position tasked with teaching other mothers and caregivers of eligible children about the program.
“They always want support to be there,” Arszman said of the program and its managers. “It’s fun being a WIC educator.”
Arszman, WIC Program Manager Nicole Cawrse and local WIC Educator Talyra Peterson know the stigmas: That the program is a form of food stamp or social safety net for low-income mothers. Or that recipients can use their benefits to buy tobacco or alcohol, rather than food.
Not so, as it turns out. Yes, WIC does offer financial aid for qualifying moms to buy nutritious foods for their families. But it also offers them much more. (Oh, and by the way, purchases must be program-approved, so even account holders pay out-of-pocket for unapproved items like sugar-heavy food, beer, cigarettes.)
The program, which launched in 1974, is built around three central pillars, according to the administrating U.S. Department of Agriculture web site. Namely, those are: nutrition education and counseling; screenings and referrals to other health, welfare and social service providers; and supplemental nutritious foods.
To qualify, a woman must be either pregnant, or post-partum up to one year if breast feeding or six months if not. Children may qualify for the benefits as long as they are under age 5 and their families meet financial guidelines.
The guideline is set at 185 percent of the federal poverty level. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, that means a family of two may earn no more than $29,637 in 2017, and a family of four may earn up to $44,955 and qualify this year.
According to a 2009 study, WIC has played a role in lowering infant mortality rates, improving pregnancy outcomes including boosting birth weights, and contributed to better early-child medical care, including dental care and immunizations. Nationally, it reaches more than 8 million women, infants and children each month, according to USDA statistics.
Here in Pueblo County, an average of 4,000 women and children are active on the program, Cawrse said. Although that may seem like a lot, she said it’s actually an estimated 1,000 short of those who qualify but don’t apply.
“Fifty percent of babies are on WIC in the U.S.,” Cawrse said. “It’s definitely changed a lot. It really isn’t what your mother’s WIC was.”
Not just nutrition
As evidence by the name, WIC’s primary focus is ensuring pregnant women, new mothers, babies and young children get the nutrition they need for growth and development. But the program has, since its inception, expanded to include a wide range of services, support groups and classes for the target population.
In Pueblo County, for example, the health department offers: clinics for new mothers — often with same-day appointments; consultations with a lactation expert and dieticians; breast feeding classes; one-on-one baby behavior consultations; and a peer-run group called “Baby’s Breast Friends.” As a starting point.
It also includes an extensive communications network that allows clients to text supportive peers and educators with questions, concerns or a sympathetic ear. And while it is primarily intended for mothers, single dads, custodial grandparents and foster or kinship-care providers may also become administrators of a child’s benefits.
All programs are evidence-based and keep up with the latest research.
“We always encourage a support person to come to our classes,” Cawrse said. “It’s not a one-person job to raise a child.”
Like Arszman, Peterson was a WIC client before she became an educator. Her son was born eight-weeks premature, and when he was finally released from the neonatal intensive care unit, she sought out the support of WIC programs and educators.
Thanks, in part, to the lactation consultant and new mother groups, that preemie is now a healthy, happy 5-year-old boy.
“Just like that, I was able to pick up a lot on nutrition,” Peterson said. “There’s a great family dynamic.”
Evolving with the times
When Arszman first joined WIC, grocery outings were an exercise in bookkeeping. She would have to consult with a pamphlet outlining the approved foods and beverages. Those approved items were bought with a check, and Arszman would have to keep track of receipts.
All this while pregnant or wrangling a young child. Suffice it to say, things have evolved with technology.
In May, WIC administrators rolled out a new app dubbed WICShopper. It includes the approved foods list, but also has a barcode scanner, in case there is any question. It also keeps tracks of each account’s benefits and, if a recipient is on the road, can give directions to the nearest WIC-approved market, Cawrse said.
That makes it discreet and private for the user, all three women agreed.
“You always have your phone,” Cawrse said. “You don’t always have the allowable foods list.”
“I love the app,” Arszman said, “It’s made things so convenient.”
As an added bonus, her husband has also downloaded it, so he is able to track nutrition information and pick up groceries that meet WIC dietary guidelines.
In addition, Cawrse has put a premium on creating an active social presence for her office, complete with an information-laden Facebook page and a dynamic Instagram account.
The entire program is designed, Cawrse said, to make the transition of becoming a parent and raising young children as simple as possible.
“WIC has helped decrease infant mortality and morbidity rates among our population,” she said. “It works. The data’s there.
“It definitely works.”
To learn more about the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), including whether you or a dependant child may be eligible for the program, call the Pueblo City-County Health Department at 583-4392, visit county.pueblo.org/government/county/department/city-county-health-department/women-infants-children-wic or visit the WIC office at the health department headquarters, 101 W. Ninth St.
WIC hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday, Thursday and Friday; and 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday.
The following is a sample of some of the foods approved in Colorado for WIC beneficiaries. All products are brand specific:
Fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables of any variety, including organics, salad and/or mixed greens, bulk and mixed fruits and vegetables.
Whole grains, including whole-wheat and whole-grain breads, corn and whole-wheat tortillas whole-wheat pasta, oats, brown rice and certain breakfast cereals and oatmeal.
Daily products including 1 percent low-fat or skim milk, yogurt and cheese.
Soy beverages and packaged tofu.
Store-grand or national-brand white eggs.
100 percent juices.
Peanut butter, dry beans or canned beans.
Baby foods made of fruits, vegetables and meats, infant cereals and infant formula.