Every month, tens of thousands of Kansans file quietly through WIC program offices to pick up “checks” written not in dollar amounts, but in weights, quantities and volumes: 36 ounces of cereal, two gallons of milk, 12 eggs, one pound of cheese. With their checks stashed safely in pockets, WIC participants scan grocery store shelves for the yellow labels that read “WIC Approved.”
BY RAELEAN FINCH
Special to The Star
One WIC recipient, a 38-year-old mom who lives with her husband and two children in Olathe, manages her grocery list minutely. After her quarterly appointment at the WIC office, armed with a few new tips for getting her children to eat vegetables and one or two WIC checks, she stops by her local grocery store and gathers items she’ll need for their next few meals.
“Someone recommended the WIC program to me and I found out we were eligible,” said the woman, who asked not be named. “It’s been a blessing. I feel like it’s helped me a lot. It allows us to get basic food items for free.”
The Women, Infants, and Children program, or WIC, provides supplemental groceries, dietary and nutritional counseling, breastfeeding consultants, and a host of other services to young families. The program’s primary goal is to ensure children born into poverty aren’t relegated to it or suffer its deleterious side effects, namely childhood obesity and malnutrition. However, as crucial as the WIC program has been for nearly 6,000 Johnson County residents over the past year, the program’s future is uncertain.
A precipitous drop in caseload has jeopardized the Johnson County WIC program’s federal funding, which could lead to fewer services and protracted administrative processing by a skeleton staff.
“We’re not really sure why” the caseload has dropped, said Laura Drake, Johnson County’s WIC program manager. “There was a lot of media talking about clinics in other states closing down during the recession, but the clinics in Kansas have never shut down.”
Drake said the poverty data made available by United Community Services reveals there are still many people in Johnson county who could likely benefit from nutritional assistance.
“I know there are people out there that could really use the program and if our dollars get cut, they’re not going to be able to benefit from a program that’s supposed to help their children get a healthy start in life,” said Drake.
According to a November 2012 report published by UCS of Johnson County most people “cycle in and out of poverty,” but the number of Johnson County residents living below the poverty line has steadily increased over the past decade.
Meanwhile, the number of WIC program participants dropped nearly 14 percent in 2013, from 6,717 in January to 5,805 in November.
Patrice Thomsen, a Kansas state WIC program consultant, said WIC programs across the state have seen similar declines. The number of statewide WIC participants also dropped by 14 percent during the same time frame from nearly 75,000 to just over 64,000.
The decline in WIC participants could be due in part to the increased ease with which the program’s target demographic can take advantage of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the Food Stamp Program. While WIC participation has declined across the state, SNAP participation has increased by nearly 100,000 since 2009.
Many SNAP enrollment requirements can be completed online. Long gone are the days when food stamps were actually stamps, licked and stuck to vouchers. Now, participants in the federally funded SNAP are issued a “Vision card” which can be automatically loaded with funds and swiped at the cash register much like a typical debit card.
Drake said most WIC participants pick up checks in person at WIC offices in Mission and Olathe. They must be weighed and measured bi-annually and consult with dieticians to ensure the program is meeting their specific nutritional needs. They are weighed and measured to see how they’re progressing with their dietician’s recommendations, making sure the children are gaining enough weight and new moms are healthy, for example. The requirements may be perceived as more of a hardship than the SNAP enrollment requirements.
“It’s possibly easier to use SNAP than WIC,” said Drake. “We encourage (WIC) participants to use the WIC checks for the foods they can specifically get on WIC, and then use their SNAP money for foods WIC doesn’t provide.”
Drake attributes the steady decline in WIC participation to a lack of information. Some people may not realize they’re eligible for the program, some may think they can’t receive WIC and SNAP assistance simultaneously, or may fear WIC administrators and providers are required to report illegal immigrants to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which they are not.
Whatever the reason, Drake and Thomsen are concerned about a continued downward trend in participation and what it might mean for those struggling through poverty.
“I’ve been with the county for 14 years and we’ve never had an issue like this, so I can’t say what the long-term effects might be,” said Drake.