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WIC nutrition program helping thousands despite stereotypes

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LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP) — Beth Hughes has heard the stereotypes: That low-income families relying on government aid programs are lazy, unemployed or uneducated.

Her family is proof that stereotype doesn't hold water.

She is one of more than 4,000 low-income Tippecanoe County mothers taking part in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, colloquially known as WIC.

"The majority of people on it are employed," Hughes said of the program. "The majority of people are just trying to make ends meet and they can't."

But how many in the public fully understand what that program is — especially compared to its more well-known cousin, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program formerly known as "food stamps?"

How many know that WIC served an average of 159,525 Hoosiers each month in 2013? Or that during that year, more than 46 percent of live births in Tippecanoe County were to mothers participating in the WIC program?

Not enough, if you ask Tippecanoe County WIC coordinator Colleen Batt.

"A lot of people don't know about WIC," Batt said. "The misconception is that everyone who comes to WIC is living off the system, and I think that people are reluctant to participate in WIC because of that."

Like other WIC clients, the Hughes family falls at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty line.

Hughes' husband, Gabriel, is finishing his last year as a forestry and entomology graduate student at Purdue University, where he earns about $1,200 a month after taxes as a research assistant.

Meanwhile, Hughes is raising the couple's three children and working on the side part-time as a tutor, which lands the family another $400 a month.

That's three kids — soon to be four — on an approximate annual income of $19,200.

"The WIC program has helped us be able to stay on budget and not go into debt," Hughes said.

WIC began in the 1960s with the mission of providing formula to mothers who were feeding their infants milk from unsafe sources. Since then, the program has evolved, focusing more on breastfeeding education. It also provides dietitians and health professionals to assist mothers and their children.

But likely the most visible aspect of WIC is its food assistance program, which provides checks for specific food items to participating mothers. In 2013, about $110.3 million in food items were purchased by mothers through WIC at Indiana grocery stores, according to the Indiana State Department of Health.

WIC's scope is more narrow than the SNAP program — serving only pregnant, postpartum and breastfeeding women; infants up to age 1; and children up to age 5. Unlike the open-ended SNAP program, WIC is a short-term program.

Also unlike the SNAP program, which allows clients to use an EBT debit card to purchase a range of eligible food items, WIC checks can be applied only to a limited range of nutritious foods, including fruits, vegetables, meats, milk, cheese and eggs.

WIC dietitians consult with clients, using federal guidelines to allot them a certain quantity of food items.

The client is then issued a check to be used for those specific items. The client then takes the check to the grocery store, picks up those items and presents the check to the cashier.

But the transaction isn't always easy.

If the client picks an item not covered by WIC, the transaction won't go smoothly. The client will be stopped at checkout and told to go back and find the correct item.

The attention such mistakes might draw from other shoppers waiting in line — and the reaction of cashiers — can discourage or deter current and potential WIC clients, Batt said.

"The transaction can be sometimes cumbersome, particularly if the client chooses a wrong food, because it's up to the grocery store to say to them, 'This is not allowed on WIC,'" Batt said.

The same will happen if a client misses an item. It's all or nothing for a WIC transaction: Miss one item on your check and you won't be able to use it to purchase the rest.

If the client is purchasing food with her own money — WIC is meant to supplement a client's food shopping — or is using a second WIC check, those items must be purchased in a separate transaction.

Interaction between WIC clients and store employees also can be a concern. It's one of the biggest complaints Batt receives from clients.

"There are some stores that are a bit more friendly for WIC items," Hughes said. "The cashiers are a bit more accepting. There's one store I won't ever take the WIC checks to because the cashiers just give you dirty looks. Like, 'How dare you give me this? This is so much extra work for me.'"

The WIC program is funded annually by Congress and is up for reauthorization every five years. The current program will expire in September unless renewed.

Because of the narrow scope of the WIC program, the program has enjoyed fairly broad support from both sides of the political aisle, Batt said.

A 2012 national opinion survey found that, although GOP members were more likely to feel unfavorably about the program, in both parties no fewer than 56 percent of those polled supported it.

As a result, the question isn't so much whether the program will be renewed; it's how much money the program will receive.

Batt said that county WIC programs are being forced to stretch their dollars further than ever, particularly when it comes to administrative costs. Already Batt has been forced to make cuts, including staffing.

"We've seen Indiana decrease staffing allowances," Batt said. "We've also seen less allowance for continuing education conferences. One of my concerns is, are we going to be able to meet the continuing education needs of our dietitians" and lactation consultants.

Batt said she's been forced to eliminate her low-end staff. She cut one part-time, 30-hours-per-week position back to 24 hours a week. And this year, Batt said, the clinic eliminated the use of paid Purdue University students. Those students worked a combined 30 hours a week during the school year and full time during the summer.

Experience at a program like WIC was a launching pad for those students into careers as dietitians, Batt said.

"In this day and age of, 'We're giving away too much money,' I think the chances are good WIC's going to have to really fight for everything they get in terms of funding," Batt said. "There are certainly those who are wanting to look at making big cuts."

From a young age, Tanesha Williams was entranced by the ladies of her local WIC program.

"There was four of us kids and my mom was a single mom so we had a lot of assistance," Williams said. "I absolutely loved it, when I was young, and we'd go to the WIC office. The ladies were so nice."

She had no idea at the time that she'd later become one.

Williams now is breastfeeding peer counselor with the Tippecanoe County WIC program. She still is a client of the program, using it to help support herself and her two kids.

"It really made me appreciate being a client even more because I got to go behind the scenes," Williams said. "Having that experience I had growing up with WIC and now having it with my own children, I try to give that same thing to our clients."

The number of clients enrolled in Tippecanoe County's program, however, has been dropping since it crested at more than 5,000 women and children in 2008, Batt said.

She is not quite sure why. Birth rates have fluctuated, standing in 2013 at 12.6 percent, compared to 13.9 percent in 2008, according to the State Department of Health.

Periodic changes in eligible food items can turn some clients away, Batt said, pointing to a recent switch in which the program stopped covering all milk types other than 2 percent.

But larger barriers may be the lack of awareness about the program or the sense of pride deterring potential clients from enrolling.

"There are many families out there we could also be assisting," Batt said. "I think it's sometimes pride, even though people are struggling — really struggling."




Information from: Journal and Courier,

This is an AP Member Exchange shared by the Journal & Courier.

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