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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah health professionals were recognized Wednesday for providing "exemplary" breastfeeding programs across the state.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture presented leaders from four local health departments in the state with some of the annual Loving Support Awards of Excellence.
"These awards confirm the work that all these people are doing," said Chris Furner, state director of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program of Women, Infants and Children.
"We are being successful in the communities in which we all reside," he said.
The USDA awarded Davis and Utah counties with Gold Premiere awards, the highest level given this year and among 10 other departments across the country.
"It's really exciting," said Amanda Ottley, a breastfeeding coordinator with the Utah County Health Department. "Especially because it helps my staff know that they're doing what they need to do."
Tooele County and Tri-County, which serves Uintah, Duchesne and Daggett counties, received the second-tier Gold Awards, among 76 other departments in the country.
The USDA's WIC agencies, across Utah and the country, provide low-income women with supplemental foods, health care referrals and nutrition education. Primarily, the program promotes breastfeeding, Furner said.
"I started my own personal breastfeeding experience crying in a WIC clinic because I couldn't get my baby to latch," said Katie Kissel, a breastfeeding coordinator for Tri-County. "They probably saved my sanity and allowed me to breastfeed for a year."
Congrats to our #WIC Peer Counseling Team for receiving the Gold Premier Loving Support Award of Excellence! This award recognizes our counseling program and strong partnerships that work to support and promote #breastfeeding. pic.twitter.com/bQL94nt6e8— Davis County Health (@DavisCountyHlth) August 2, 2018
Besides personal successes, Furner said the work they are doing can show some quantifiable success. Statewide in 2017, 87 percent of Utah's WIC participants had breastfed at least once, among the highest rates in the country, he said.
"That's amazing to me," Furner said.
Nationally, the USDA reports that less than 30 percent of infants are breastfed in their first year.
Most of the award-winning programs in the state had higher rates than these statistics, he said, and each is setting goals to improve them.
"We have a very strong breastfeeding program here," Furner said.
Along with Wednesday's awards, the USDA is celebrating National Breastfeeding Week, recognizing breastfeeding's unique nutritional benefits for an infant's growth and development and its ability to reduce the risk of infectious and chronic disease.
In the past year, WIC has helped over 7.1 million people, according to Cheryl Kennedy, a regional director with the USDA. In Utah, that number reaches well over 48,000.
"For all of the 48,000 people out there that will never be able to tell you 'thank you,' I just want you to know that without you, it would be very difficult for them to get to the place they are, and to get to their place of success," Kennedy told Wednesday's award winners.