The Georgia Department of Public Health is holding an annual public comment period for its Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children.
The WIC program provides nutritional education and supplemental food items to low-income pregnant or postpartum women and children under age 5.
There are about 8,000 WIC participants in Hall County, a number that stays fairly consistent from year to year, public health nutrition manager Sharon McLeod said.
WIC provides a number of medical services, such as health screenings and nutrition assessments, and provides vouchers for food to satisfy specific nutritional needs.
According to the health department, pregnant women who participate in WIC have longer pregnancies resulting in fewer premature births and have fewer fetal and infant deaths. Children who participate have a 16 per cent lower rate of anemia after six months, score better on digit memory and vocabulary tests, and have healthier diets.
“You have access to registered and licensed dieticians, lactation consultants and counselors, and it is a wealth of nutritious foods that you are getting,” McLeod said. “All free of charge to the participants.”
Georgia’s WIC website, wic.ga.gov, states that low-income women in Georgia who receive both WIC and Medicaid have a significantly lower infant mortality rate than other low-income women in the state.
To be eligible, WIC applicants must live in Georgia, have a family income under 185 per cent of the federal poverty guidelines and be pregnant, postpartum, breast-feeding or have a child under age 5.
According to a 2010 national study, 537,340 Georgians were eligible for WIC benefits at the time. However, only 57.6 percent of those eligible actually participated.
The largest challenges preventing eligible residents in Northeast Georgia from participating in WIC are inadequate transportation and a lack of knowledge of the program, McLeod said.
“There are a lot of people who are eligible but they don’t realize that they are because they don’t call or they think their income is too high,” she said.
“Other people don’t know that you don’t have to live in Hall County to receive benefits. WIC is a state-specific program; you just need to be a Georgia resident.”
The health department has a number of outreach programs that have sent educational packets to local doctors offices, day cares, other state agencies, grocery stores and laundromats. They have also tried traditional advertisement such as public billboards.
Much of the outreach targets Gainesville’s large Latino population by providing Spanish language materials and services. But one of the most effective forms of advertisement is word-of-mouth, McLeod said.
“If we can get one person in from a community then sometimes by word-of-mouth participation will increase,” she said.
WIC has roots that go as far back as 1968, when a group of physicians met with various government officials in Washington to discuss medical ailments they were seeing in impoverished pregnant women due to lack of food. They developed a plan to develop food dispensaries attached to local clinics to honor prescriptions for food from doctors. The first U.S. Department of Agriculture food dispensary program was established in Atlanta.
WIC grew out of the dispensary program and was officially established in 1972 through an amendment to the Child Nutrition Act of 1966. Since then it has provided services to millions of people. Georgia’s WIC program served 303,875 people in the fiscal year 2012 and provides food through 1,446 authorized retailers.