How to strengthen nutrition and health for Women, Infants & Children (Guest Post: Monica Barczak)

Photo by Bev Sykes
Photo by Bev Sykes

Monica Barczak is Director of Innovation Lab at CAP Tulsa, where she leads a small team responsible for a variety of research and program design and improvement efforts.

A child’s successful growth and development depends on many factors, including good nutrition and health from the pre-natal period through the earliest months and years of life. Unfortunately, too many Oklahoma children lack sufficient nutrition, hampering their readiness for school and learning and triggering other health issues ranging from obesity to infections to increased risk of social-emotional problems.

While the private sector and faith-based community play a significant role in alleviating hunger in Oklahoma, such services tend to limit the number of times families can access help. But pregnant women and young children in particular need a consistent source of adequate nutrition to ensure healthy development. Federal nutrition programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly Food Stamps) and the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) are invaluable in filling the gap. So it is critical that such programs are designed to make the most impact for clients while operating in the most effective and efficient way. While WIC generally receives high marks among users, improvements could be made to help clients take full advantage of the program benefits.

A new brief written by CAP Tulsa along with the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma and Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma recommends three specific action steps to improve the program:

  1. Increase opportunities for clients to enroll in WIC when they enroll in other public benefits;
  2. Increase the number of physical locations where clients can enroll; and,
  3. Conduct deeper research of WIC client experiences to better understand why eligible participants do not always consistently take full advantage of the benefits the program has to offer.

The brief includes findings from a state-wide survey of WIC-eligible client that was administered by the Food Banks and CAP.

WWICIC is a federal program administered through states and tribal governments to provide food assistance (in the form of vouchers or EBT cards), nutrition education, and breastfeeding support. It is the 3rd largest federal nutrition program, behind SNAP and the National School Lunch Program. It serves infants, children up to age 5 and pregnant, post-partum, and breastfeeding women, regardless of immigration status. It is not, however, an entitlement program, which means there is no guarantee that everyone who is eligible will be served.

The latest available data show Oklahoma does about average in terms of enrolling the likely eligible population. Nationally, 63 percent of those who are likely eligible for WIC are in fact participating. In Oklahoma, the figure is 60 percent . This compares to a low of 47 percent in Utah and a high of 80 percent in California. In absolute numbers, more children aged 1 to 5 participate in WIC than either infants or children; however, the rate of participation among those eligible is highest for infants (85 percent nationally), followed by postpartum and pregnant women (81 and 71 percent respectively) , and then children (52 percent). What this means is there is high utilization when the mother is pregnant and the baby is a newborn or infant. After the child turns one year old, however, families tend to cycle off the program. Indeed, among respondents in the Food Bank / CAP survey, the average age of the youngest child was 1.5 years for those who were receiving WIC at the time of the survey and 3.0 years for those who were not. Losing the nutritional boost afforded by WIC is likely not optimal for these very young children.

Policy makers and those who administer WIC should be interested in understanding why eligible individuals do not enroll, and why those who participate do not remain enrolled for the full duration of their eligibility. According to the Food Bank / CAP survey results, lack of awareness about the program is not the problem. Not many families find language or immigration issues to get in the way; nor do they indicate that the paper-based food vouchers or limited food selection are barriers. Twenty-seven percent of respondents did say lack of transportation hinders them from participating, warranting a further investigation into where clients can enroll compared to where they live or access other services.

National research on WIC has demonstrated its positive effects on birth outcomes, some early childhood indicators, and even other health outcomes over the life of the child. In many ways, it is a federal program meeting its preventive health goals. Given Oklahoma’s generally poor performance in maternal and child health, everything that can be done to encourage full participation in WIC should be done.     

The opinions stated above are not necessarily those of OK Policy, its staff, or its board. This blog is a venue to help promote the discussion of ideas from various points of view and we invite your comments and contributions. To see our guidelines for blog submissions, click here.

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The opinions stated in guest articles are not necessarily those of OK Policy, its staff, or its board. To see our guidelines for blog submissions, click here.

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