WIC use down in Whatcom County, providers try outreach

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMarch 6, 2014 

Fewer Whatcom County women are using a 40-year-old public program that provides healthy food for them and their young children along with services that include nutrition education.

That trend for the Women, Infants and Children program is occurring here, statewide and across the country, providers said.

So providers are reminding women of low and moderate incomes that they could qualify for the supplemental nutrition program.

WIC serves pregnant, postpartum and breastfeeding women who qualify based on household income, as well as infants and children up to age 5. It also provides support for women who are breastfeeding, and health care referrals for pregnant women and their children up to age 5.

But the level of use isn't what it used to be and has been going down in Whatcom County the past three to four years.

In December, 37 percent of Medicaid clients in Whatcom County who were eligible for WIC weren't participating.

In January, the Whatcom County Health Department served just 2,138 clients when its allowable caseload is 2,200.

It is one of four clinics providing WIC services in Whatcom County.

"What each clinic is serving each month has dropped as well," said Kelly Molaski, who supervises the WIC program at the Health Department.

Molaski said there were a number of reasons for the drop in participation:

-- "People don't know it exists," she said.

-- There are fewer clients because the birth rate has dropped.

-- Food stamps are easier to get and use than WIC vouchers. Also, each family member has received a voucher worth about $50 of food on WIC, while food stamps provide a bit more.

-- WIC participants must bring their children in every six months for a health assessment, which could be a barrier for working families.

-- People don't know what WIC provides.

-- Clients don't realize their children could stay in the program up to age 5. "They think once they turn 1 they're not eligible, but that's not true at all," Molaski said.

-- Confusion about whether WIC remained open because of threatened or actual government shutdowns recently. It was open, but "people just weren't coming in," Molaski said.

That confusion led to decreases statewide.

"The caseload took a precipitous drop after the government shutdown," said Cathy Franklin of the Washington Department of Health and the nutrition coordinator with WIC.

Franklin said participation rates in Washington dropped to 2007 levels.

Bellingham resident Sarah Lewis, a mother of four, has been a WIC client since fall 2007. She said the food vouchers "make a huge difference in our monthly budget."

Lewis also appreciated the support she and her family received from the WIC staff.

"I think it's rare to have somebody who will sit and listen to you while you talk about something that's going on with your life." Lewis said. "It's pretty great as a mom to feel like you come into a place and they affirm the things you're doing."

HOW TO SIGN UP

There are four Women, Infants and Women (WIC) programs in Whatcom County. To enroll, go to:

-- Whatcom County Health Department, 1500 N. State St., Bellingham. 360-676-6762. whatcomcounty.us/health/nutrition.

-- SeaMar, 4455 Cordata Parkway, Bellingham. 360-788-7150.

-- Lummi Tribal Health Center, 2592 Kwina Road, Lummi reservation. 360-312-2467.

-- Nooksack Tribal Clinic, 2510 Sulwhanon Drive, Everson. 360-966-2106.

A family of two with a household income of up to $28,694 qualify, while a family of four with a household income of $43,568 could be eligible. A pregnant woman and her unborn children counts as a family of two.

Women can call or go to any of the clinics in Whatcom County to sign up for WIC. They will be scheduled for an eligibility appointment, when a health history will be obtained.

Reach KIE RELYEA at kie.relyea@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2234.

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