For Trenton resident Linda Bailey, the vouchers for fresh food and baby formula that she receives from a federally funded nutrition program are essential to making ends meet.
“It’s very expensive nowadays,” Bailey said, adding that she spent nearly $150 per month on formula before joining the program allowed her to eliminate ,those costs. “And if you can get the help, get it.”
The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, is federally funded but state-operated. State Health Commissioner Mary E. O’Dowd has taken on the mission of making sure that more mothers like Bailey, who has two-year-old and newborn daughters, are receiving its benefits.
While more than 170,000 state residents receive WIC food vouchers, state officials estimate that roughly 40,000 more residents are eligible for the program but aren’t enrolled in it.
“The benefits of the WIC program really promote a healthy start in life to children and their entire families, and so it’s so important that women take advantage of those opportunities,” O’Dowd said.
O’Dowd and other state officials are spending this week holding a series of events marking the 40th anniversary of New Jersey becoming one of the first 10 states to operate a WIC program. It also is being heralded with a public-awareness campaign,
WIC can also serve as an entry point for other safety-net programs. Along with nutrition vouchers — including supplemental vouchers for fresh food at farmers markets — the program provides nutrition and breastfeeding education; immunization screenings and referrals; and referrals for free or reduced-cost healthcare and other social services, such as food stamps and welfare.
“Some people don’t realize that they’re eligible, and so just making that call to determine eligibility is a first step,” O’Dowd said. “Some people don’t realize that they continue to be eligible over time.”
WIC covers pregnant, postpartum and breastfeeding mothers and children under age five in households with annual incomes below 185 percent of the federal poverty line, currently amounting to $21,590 for a household with one person and $44,123 for a household with four people.
The program covers 53 percent of all infants born in the country, although having eligible families miss the opportunity of participating is a national challenge.
Patricia Dombrowski, food and nutrition service regional administrator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, noted that the farmers market vouchers are a significant benefit, but there can be logistical challenges to mothers, both in terms of transportation and in knowing how to cook nutritious meals.
“There are challenges when you have a mom, maybe with two young children in tow, and trying to get transportation to a farmers market and then . . . being able to get all of those items home,” said Dombrowski, who visited the Mercer County WIC office yesterday, which is operated by Children’s Home Society of New Jersey.
O’Dowd suggested that the program can develop recipes that mothers can pick up with their vouchers — a concept that was seized on by Dombrowski.
“There are so many ways in which you really can use fresh fruits and vegetables that are not time consuming,” she said.
“There are a lot of myths in the healthcare world, especially in nutrition and breastfeeding, and we really try to help families debunk those myths,” said Kelly Mannherz, Mercer County WIC program administrator for the Children’s Home Society. “Many women may have heard from friends or family that breastfeeding hurts and that may make them decide not to want to choose that as the feeding option for their children.”
However, the WIC program provides more fact-based information, including information on the health benefits to both mothers and babies from breastfeeding.
Another problem she has seen is mothers who provide potentially healthy foods like milk and fruit juices in such quantities that they become unhealthy, so the program provides information on appropriate serving sizes for different ages.
The state Department of Health produced a brief video that it’s distributing to healthcare providers and other public agencies about WIC, and there will also be advertisements about the program on NJ Transit buses and trains.
“We’re hoping to get the message out there, just come on down to our office and see if you qualify,” Mannherz said.
Potentially eligible mothers can learn about the program online and can find out if they qualify by calling their local WIC office to schedule an appointment. Call 800-328-3838 to find the nearest WIC office.