The federally funded Women, Infants and Children program, known as WIC, aims at improving the health and nutritional status of women who are either pregnant, breast-feeding, or up to six months postpartum along with their infants and children up to age 5.
“It’ s not welfare,” said dietitian Laura Honeycutt, who directs the program in Penobscot and Piscataquis counties. “Some people feel like it’ s a handout, but it’ s not. It’ s an education and supplemental feeding program. And it’ s free.” The program is administered by the United States Department of Agriculture.
To be eligible, a woman must have an income of no more than 185 percent of the federal poverty level. This year, for a pregnant woman with no children, that amounts to a monthly income of $1,604. A woman with two children under age 5 could earn as much as $2,714 and still be eligible for WIC benefits. Any woman enrolled in the federal Food Stamp Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or Medicaid is automatically eligible for WIC benefits as well. Fathers and other relatives may apply for WIC benefits for their children.
Eligibility also requires that participants be deemed at nutritional risk, either because of a diagnosed condition such as anemia or diabetes or because of consuming a diet that doesn’ t meet the recommendations of the USDA. Since few Americans do meet those guidelines, Honeycutt said, the “nutritional risk” requirement is generally easy to satisfy.
Unlike the Food Stamp Program, which allows participants to purchase virtually any food products they want, WIC provides only specific foods that are considered nutritious by the USDA, with special emphasis placed on foods high in protein, calcium, iron, Vitamin A, Vitamin C and, for pregnant women, folic acid. The program’ s goal is to promote good health by providing the high-density nutrients and calories needed by a woman and her developing fetus during pregnancy and gestation and by breast-feeding mothers, infants and growing children in the first few years of life.
WIC participants receive a monthly package of paper checks with which they can purchase a designated food “package” based on their needs. The average individual monthly package has a food-purchasing value of $56. A package for a pregnant or breast-feeding woman, or for older children, might include cow or goat milk, eggs, cheese, fruit juice, iron-fortified hot or cold cereal, peanut butter, dried beans, canned tuna and fresh carrots. In addition to being accepted in most grocery stores, the checks also may be used at some farmers’ markets.
Mothers who elect not to breast-feed can get powdered or canned formula for their babies, though Honeycutt said she and other members of the WIC staff promote breast-feeding whenever possible. Parents are required to bring their babies and children to the WIC office each month when they pick up their checks. Staff members perform a basic health and development assessment and provide nutritional advice and parenting support at each visit.
Honeycutt’ s office, one of nine regional WIC offices in Maine, now serves about 3,200 women, infants and children each month in Penobscot and Piscataquis counties. Statewide, enrollment has increased steadily from 22,819 participants in March 2004 to 25,538 in March of this year. The March 2008 participants included 5,851 women, 5,815 infants and 13,872 children ages 1 to 5.
Maine receives about $17 million a year to purchase food for the WIC program and another $5.6 million to administer it, including paying about 90 state employees at the nine regional offices and at the Department of Health and Human Services in Augusta.
Nationally, WIC provides assistance to about 8.5 million individuals each month and has a budget this year of about $5.5 billion. According to the national program Web site, about half of all babies born in the U.S. receive WIC benefits at some point during their first year of life. More information about WIC in Maine is available at www.state.me.us/dhhs/wic/about.htm.