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As the Nation Celebrates the 50th Anniversary of WIC, Bucks County Shows How Effective This Federal Program Can Be

“As a pediatrician, I have seen firsthand the benefits of the PA WIC program for women, children, and families across the Commonwealth,” said PA’s Acting Secretary of Health Dr. Debra Bogen.
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After years of running in the back of the pack, Pennsylvania – and Bucks County in particular – is leading the majority of the country in at least one indicator of children’s health: nutrition. Governor Josh Shapiro and his administration have spent the month celebrating the monumental achievement of subscribing record numbers of children to a decades old feeding program.

The United States Department of Agriculture shoulders responsibility for feeding America’s most economically disadvantaged individuals. Depending on various income guidelines and other state specific regulations, nearly 12.5 percent, more than 41 million U.S. residents receive SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program more commonly referred to as Food Stamps. Additionally, this year marks the 50th anniversary of a specifically created USDA feeding initiative known as WIC – the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children. WIC provides targeted dietary support to pregnant persons whose incomes fall below 125 percent of the poverty level, as well as their newborn babies and children through four years of age. 

Pennsylvania has been with the program since its inception. At the beginning of the month, Governor Josh Shapiro kicked of the festivities celebrating Allegheny County, where Pennsylvania’s participation in WIC first began on May 28, 1974. The governor proclaimed this month Women, Infants and Children Month, focusing on expanding enrollment and concluding this week with a State House press conference where lawmakers and government administrators touted the keystone states recent successes identifying those who qualify for the program.

READ: This Bucks County Grandmother Raising Her Granddaughter Underscores the Need for Strengthening Our Social Safety Net

“As a pediatrician, I have seen firsthand the benefits of the PA WIC program for women, children, and families across the Commonwealth. The program supports nutritional and age-appropriate education and diets, breastfeeding support and education, and referrals to services in their communities,” said PA’s Acting Secretary of Health Dr. Debra Bogen. “Evaluations of the WIC program across decades have consistently shown that participation results in better pregnancy and child health outcomes. Even after 50 years, the WIC program continues to evolve to meet the needs of Pennsylvania women, infants, and children.”

Forty percent of all U.S. children, from birth through four years of age, receive supplemental nutrition from WIC – that’s an enormous number of kids in the wealthiest nation on earth getting nutritional support based on family income. And while not all the young people and their parents who qualify receive this game changing necessity – Pennsylvania has become a trailblazer with a record breaking 182,688 persons participating in March of 2024.

Pennsylvania’s track record hasn’t always been stellar. As recently as 2021, overall participation in WIC lagged at 41 percent. Neil Ruhland, Deputy Press Secretary at the PA Department of Health touts the commonwealth’s recent improvements. “As of February, Pennsylvania ranked 8th of the 89 WIC [federal] jurisdictions with 66 percent of eligible people enrolled.” That’s a vast improvement from the middle of the pack performance just three years ago.

Asked about recent successes, Ruhland credits improved outreach, and prefers not to look backward but forward to emphasizing the goal of increased enrollment, “Our hope is to really get as many WIC eligible people participating as possible.”

Studies show that kids who receive WIC have better health outcomes than children in poverty who do not.

Of all the success stories in Pennsylvania, Bucks County – with 4,505 participants as of last month – is one of the most remarkable with even higher participation rates. Bucks’ enrollment stands at 69 percent – one of the best in the commonwealth and 20 percent higher than at this time in 2021.

READ: In Bucks County, a Small Church Strives to Help the Ones Around Them

Maternal and Family Health Services (MFHS), a non-profit health and human service organization, administers the program for the county. MFHS has been working with WIC in Pennsylvania since the beginning, but only recently took over the task of outreach for Bucks County, having been awarded the grant by the Pennsylvania Department of Health in 2021. 

Faith Knight, Office Coordinator Bucks County WIC offices, credits some of their success with institutional improvements made by the USDA – like phone apps to help consumers – as well as increased outreach with three offices located in Bristol, Warminster and Quakertown.

Knight thinks location is extremely important for the population they serve. “Where our offices are located right now, with easy to access public transportation nearby, we’re better able to serve participants” who have to appear in person for intakes, to load their benefits onto their cards and to comply with regular monitoring exams for children in the program. As of April, Warminster served 1221 women and children, Bristol – 2687, and Quakertown – 597. Knight believes it would be much more difficult for participants were there only one location available.

Knight also praises the flexible hours implemented to help working families. Staying open until 6:00 p.m. on Monday nights and making adjustments to schedules when needed. Knight explained, “Staff may stay later to accommodate someone who has to be a little late.” 

Knight credits her staff for much of their success. One such example of MFHS participant focused policy was their active recruitment of Daisy Salazar – a WIC recipient – to work as a Program Assistant. Salazar now gets to help others like herself. A Spanish speaker from birth, Salazar explained, “I came for an appointment, met with the office coordinator and ended up helping with translation. Eventually, they asked me for a resume.”

Salazar says WIC helped improve her diet when she was pregnant. “It was really helpful to have fruits and vegetables. I started eating healthy then. And my baby was born really healthy.” Her child Nathan, now three years old, “Loves fruit. But he’s picky with his vegetables. He says ‘no’ to everything. So, I put spinach in smoothies with bananas and blueberries or strawberries in a blender. Now he eats spinach.”

Salazar brings more to the MFHS program than her Spanish. She’s also keenly aware of how WIC recipients are treated. “I have knowledge to share. I use the same benefits. When I go to use my card in a store, I have the same problems. Sometimes stores will say, ‘you can’t get that’ – like potatoes, which of course they can get. I can verify what the recipients say about the problems they can have at the retailers.”

After Salazar (or others) flags a concern, MFHS has a dedicated staff member who approaches the retailers for further training on the program. “Some stores can be rude. Or charge a lot. If they don’t comply, they lose the contract.”

People with lived experience lending their expertise to Pennsylvania’s WIC program stretches all the way to the top. At Wednesday’s press conference, Sally Zubairu-Cofield – Director of Pennsylvania WIC, shared that she too, availed herself of the program. She took time to emphasize the importance of good nutrition for parents and their children. As Zubairu-Cofield explained, she had been a financially insecure pregnant nineteen-year-old. She thanked the public servants who taught her to care for and feed her baby.

READ: Homelessness in Bucks County: Right Under Our Noses

Because WIC regularly screens the children in the program, Acting Health Secretary Dr. Bogen likewise touts better health outcomes for those children and their moms, including “increased rates of women breastfeeding in Pennsylvania, due to all the support they get during pregnancy.” Bogen cites breastfeeding rates, “increased from 28 percent in 1995 to 66 percent in March of this year.” She emphasized, “People who breastfeed have a lower lifetime risk of cardio-vascular disease, and heart disease – the number one killer of women in this country – as well as lower risk of breast and ovarian cancer.” 

Bogen knows that the work WIC has done supporting breastfeeding mothers helps their babies too. “Infants who are breastfed have fewer illnesses and chronic diseases.”

The commonwealth plans further expansions and outreach. The Shapiro administration expects to double the number of mobile WIC clinics – vans that serve communities with transportation challenges – and they hope to better facilitate a twenty-first century lifestyle with online shopping and increased access to grocery store self-checkout.

With further expansion of WIC, more recipients like Bucks County’s Salazar will improve their health and that of their children – at least until that child turns five. Nathan, now three-years-old will enjoy improved nutrition for a while longer. And when he ages out of the program? Salazar says, “I think it will get a lot harder. Right now everything is expensive. Maybe I’ll have to work more hours [to pay for fruits and vegetables].”

Daisy Salazar already works full time.

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Picture of Pat LaMarche

Pat LaMarche

Pat LaMarche is a freelance journalist and author. She lives in central Pennsylvania with her husband. Pat has written nine books on poverty and homelessness.

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