There are at least 40,000 children from struggling families in Spokane who could be eating more nutritious meals if their parents enrolled in a long-standing government program designed to put healthy foods into homes.
So this holiday season health officials are trying to sign more people up for the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program. That could mean more fruits, vegetables, milk, cheese, bread and other wholesome foods on the dinner tables of families, said Tiffany Muller, who manages the WIC program for the Spokane Regional Health District.
Children fed healthy foods are more likely to excel in school and avoid the obesity epidemic because of better eating habits.
In the north Spokane home of David and Melanie Ryerse, the WIC program has helped feed three children while David works on a master’s degree in health care administration.
The Ryerses have used WIC coupons to supplement their grocery budget, helping them afford the kinds of foods recommended by nutritionists as an ingredient for a healthy lifestyle.
“We’re bargain shoppers, that’s for sure,” said Melanie. “I grew up in a family where food was made from scratch, and (WIC) has helped me keep it going.”
While the program has historically been linked to ensuring poor mothers and their babies have access to infant formula and healthy foods, Muller said WIC’s reach is far greater and can bolster a needy family’s food budget.
Single dads caring for children can enroll in the WIC program. So can grandparents and other caregivers.
The program is broad enough that tens of thousands of Spokane County residents could enroll, but only about 1 in 4 who are eligible actually use it. In fact, use has fallen by about 4 percent in each of the past two years, said health district spokeswoman Kim Papich.
It’s an unusual scenario considering that the lagging economy has left about 17 percent of Spokane children living in poverty as their parents are more likely to be unemployed and poor.
And that underuse poses a problem: The funds designated for WIC spending will be lost and will shrink if more eligible families don’t enroll.
So the health district is recruiting families and has begun reversing the downward trend by making enrollment much easier, erasing the stigma of using food coupons, and extolling program benefits through a media blitz.
To qualify, a household’s income must fall at or below 185 percent of the U.S. Poverty Income Guidelines. In dollars and cents, that’s about $41,348 a year for a family of four.
Families on Medicaid, for example, automatically qualify, Muller said.
Those accepted into the program can receive assistance within days.
Women who are pregnant, breast-feeding or just had a baby, along with children younger than 5, can receive $50 worth of WIC assistance each per month. It enables a mother with two young children, then, to receive $150 in assistance to help buy nutritious food.
The program, established in 1972, is funded by the federal government. In 2011, Congress appropriated $6.7 billion for WIC.
“We want people to know that WIC help is available,” said Muller. “You don’t have to be destitute to enroll. In fact, most people using WIC are working families and students.”