Sept. 18 — Almost all professionals in the child health field will agree that good nutrition is the best way to give a newborn a head start in life.
This applies even when the child is in the womb, which is where the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Women, Infants and Children program begins.
Haywood County WIC Supervisor Mary Jane Johnson provided an overview of the program to the Board of County Commissioners this week, noting that the program has been funded several times since the 1970s because of the positive results it produces .
“It really works,” she said of the four-pronged program focused on nutrition education, provision of healthy foods, breastfeeding support and a strong referral system.
The program is offered to any low-income pregnant woman or any family with children under 5 years old. It not only provides nutrient-dense foods, but also plenty of information along the way. About 1,300 people benefit from the WIC program, although the numbers fluctuate as newborns are added and children get older.
The food portion of the program provides a WIC debit card to purchase items such as eggs, fruits, vegetables, whole grain pasta and bread, peanut butter and milk. The cardholder first presents the debit card at check-out, and eligible items are deducted from their bill up to the amount authorized on the card, Johnson said.
The amount of funding varies depending on the size of the family. For example, an eligible family with two children under the age of 5 could receive $150 per month; a pregnant woman and child would receive $190 and a breastfeeding mother, $240.
WIC recipients receive more than $1 million in benefits in Haywood alone.
“A major difference between WIC and food stamps is that we engage and counsel participants,” Johnson said.
During the Covid years, the counseling portion of WIC was suspended, but once the public health emergency declaration for the pandemic ended this year, the sessions became mandatory again.
Because many participants had become accustomed to nutritional funds being automatically added to their debit card, they neglected to return to the training sessions, meaning their card no longer worked.
That led to a slight decrease in participation, but eligible people are coming back now that they realize the education component is necessary, Johnson said.
Statistics show that WIC education reduces premature births, low birth weights, fetal and infant deaths, iron deficiency anemia, and access to routine health care.
Benefits of Breastfeeding
Another advancement of the WIC program is support for mothers who wish to or are breastfeeding. At Haywood, all WIC staff members are required to complete breastfeeding coaching, Johnson said, emphasizing the lifelong benefits for both the child and the breastfeeding mother.
This includes reducing the risk of high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and ovarian and breast cancer in breastfeeding mothers throughout their lives, Johnson said. At the same time, breastfed infants have a lower risk of asthma, diabetes, respiratory illnesses, infections and more – benefits that also last throughout their lives.
Even businesses can benefit from measures to accommodate breastfeeding mothers in the workplace. Studies show there is a three-to-one return on investment through reduced healthcare costs, reduced absenteeism, decreased turnover rates, and improved productivity and loyalty, Johnson said.
“Infant formula is a necessity for some families, but its nutritional quality will never match breast milk,” Johnson said. “We want to make sure everyone involved makes informed decisions about how to feed their baby.”
The Haywood County WIC program recently received a USDA Gold Star – the highest rating available – for its best practices in promoting and supporting breastfeeding.
Promoting the program
WIC employees have partnered with many child-focused businesses and agencies to help spread the word about the benefits of the program. In addition to setting up booths at family activities, staff members contact medical providers and other agencies to let them know what is offered through WIC and where to refer clients when needed, Johnson said .
Individuals eligible for the program must have income at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty guidelines.
For a single mother and child, that’s $26,997, and for a family of three, the maximum income is $45,991. The income level increases with the number of family members, she explained.
For more information about the WIC program, call 828-356-2220; stop by the Haywood County Department of Health and Human Services at 157 Paragon Parkway, Clyde, or visit the WIC website.