America’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) has been an institutional staple for more than 40 years. During that time it’s acted as a safeguard to millions of low-income, nutritionally at-risk pregnant and post-partum women, infants, and children up to age five. The program currently serves 53 percent of infants born in America.
WIC currently operates out of 50 state health departments, five U.S. territories, 34 Indian Tribal Organizations, the District of Columbia, and 1,900 local agencies.
Percent of infants
born in the U.S.
who are served
Over the years, the justification for WIC services has been constant: studies repeatedly show that individuals’ early life nutrition has lasting health outcomes.
Yet, the WIC services themselves continue to evolve to align with best practices. For instance, while WIC was once known primarily as a milk and formula program, it now champions breastfeeding and — as single dad Douglas Taylor discovered — offers a slew of other services.
Douglas Taylor came to WIC in early 2013, when his son D.J. was three months old. At the time, Douglas didn’t have much money, and he was struggling to afford infant formula.
Like so many others, Douglas associated WIC with milk and formula, but when he visited the WIC clinic in Brooklyn Center he discovered more.
In addition to food vouchers, staff connected Douglas to disposable diapers, clothing, and immunization services.
WIC also began monitoring DJ’s height and weight. And, as the months passed and the boy transitioned to solid foods, Douglas received crash courses in nutrition topics like Vitamin D, protein, and portion size. (The Taylors’ have a portion size poster from WIC affixed to their fridge and consult it regularly.)
Today, Douglas says D.J., now five, likes produce (especially green vegetables), is a normal height and weight, excels in pre-school, and is developmentally on track to start Kindergarten next fall.
He credits some of that to WIC.
Rolf Anderson manages the Brooklyn Center WIC clinic where Douglas and D.J. were clients, and says the Taylors’ experience reflects WIC’s evolving services.
For starters, WIC has increasingly moved toward a model that strives to do more than, “just give calories or give food,” Anderson says. “We’re trying to connect with families during those critical stages of development where [the effects of] nutritional deficiencies could be irreversible … and establish eating patterns that can last a lifetime.”
Along those lines, the WIC food package has expanded in recent years to be more nutritionally sound and culturally appealing; it now include fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grain breads and pastas, tortillas, and non-dairy alternatives like soy milk and tofu.
And during the summer months, WIC coordinates with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to offer vouchers that can be used to buy locally grown produce at farmer’s markets.
And then there’s breastfeeding: “Historically [WIC was] looked at as a milk program or a formula program,” Anderson says. “But we’ve really tried to change that perception to ‘we are the breastfeeding experts.’ It is well-documented that breastfeeding is one of the best way to get babies off to a good start.”
Today Hennepin County WIC staff are trained in breastfeeding, and many are certified lactation consultants. Staff talk with women about breastfeeding so they can make an informed decision about whether to do it. (Topics include pumping and workplace breastfeeding legislation.) If women decide to breastfeed, WIC offers support during the entire process.
Since 2005, one of those supports is breastfeeding peer counselors — women with experience breastfeeding their own children.
“[Our breastfeeding peer counselors] all have county-issued cell phones,” Anderson says. “And they try to connect with people before they have their baby — and then as soon as possible after they have their baby — so that they can get them at the critical times when moms might get discouraged and give up.”
The county currently has 18 breastfeeding peer counselors, and the Minnesota Department of Health has documented that women with a peer have higher rates of breastfeeding initiation and duration than women without.
Overall, WIC’s new focus is providing services that take into account participants’ unique needs (Hennepin County calls this “participant-centered services”). “We’re really trying to focus on what’s important to the client,” Anderson says. “In some cases, maybe housing might be more important than nutrition issues,” he offers, as example. “Or maybe people are having heating issues in cold weather months … We’re trying to get our staff familiarized with lots of different [social service] resources.”
To see if you qualify for WIC in Minnesota visit: http://www.health.state.mn.us/divs/fh/wic/eligibility/step1.html
To see a list of WIC locations in Minnesota, visit: http://www.health.state.mn.us/divs/fh/wic/findclinicfooter.html
To learn more about Hennepin County WIC, visit: https://www.hennepin.us/residents/health-medical/wic-women-infants-children
To make an appointment with Hennepin County WIC, call: 612-348-6100
Written by: Lori Imsdahl