The spread of COVID-19 has resulted in uncertainty, fear and for many, economic crisis. Layoffs, furloughs and loss of business mean more families are dealing with food insecurity and perhaps facing the hard choice of paying a bill or buying groceries.
For qualifying individuals, relief can be found through WIC, the federal government’s Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants, and Children. In Macomb County, WIC is administered by two agencies - Community First Health Centers and the Macomb County Health Department. These organizations currently serve thousands of families, but there is capacity to help many more.
“WIC programs across Michigan and across the country have the bandwidth to enroll all eligible women, infants and children in their communities,” said Martha Brooks, WIC coordinator for the Health Department. “There is no waiting list.”
To enroll, individuals must contact a WIC office for an initial screening and to schedule an appointment. If approved, benefits will be distributed to that person on the same day.
“But this isn’t your mother’s WIC program,” said Natalie Dean-Wood, division director for Community Health Planning and Promotion at the Health Department. “Back in the day, services were not as agile. The focus was to deliver coupons for food and formula. Today WIC uses a client-centered approach to provide nutrition education and counseling, breastfeeding promotion and support, referrals to community programs and specific supplemental food packages so recipients can buy milk, cereal, fresh fruits and vegetables, juice, baby foods, infant formula and other items.”
By providing this support, WIC can help families reduce their monthly grocery bills so they can pay for rent, utilities, gas and other essentials for children, including diapers and wipes. Research shows that these benefits produce positive outcomes for the individual receiving assistance and the community as a whole.
“Nourished women and children have better immune systems to fight infections,” said Brooks. “Additionally, when we support proper growth and development, we build a healthier community in the future. For instance, preschoolers who are well-fed are better prepared for school. And teaching families how to live healthier lifestyles leads to a healthier population and lower health care costs down the line.”
One lifestyle choice WIC recommends is breastfeeding. The program provides education, support and tools, like breast pumps, free of charge.
“WIC does not provide all of the formula an infant needs in their first year and it can be very expensive to purchase,” said Lauren Cody, the WIC breastfeeding coordinator. “This is one reason why WIC is dedicated to promoting breastfeeding as the normal way to feed a baby. Besides the health benefits, breastfeeding saves families hundreds, even thousands of dollars per year in grocery and health care costs.”
Currently, more than 14,000 families in Macomb County receive WIC benefits. A wide range of individuals can qualify. For example, a family of four can earn up to $47,638 annually and receive WIC. Other qualifications include being pregnant, being postpartum up to six months or breastfeeding up to a year, having children aged zero to five and/or being an active Medicaid or SNAP benefit recipient. Grandparents and single fathers with custody of children can also apply and receive support.
“There is a stigma, which creates some reluctance to enroll,” said Dean-Wood. “This has always been true; even though lower-wage working families often meet the eligibility criteria, there may be some hesitation to participate. But WIC is a well-known, health-enhancing program with nationalized standards of care. It has an established track record, so residents, clients and partners can trust that procedures and information will be accurate and always in the best interest of the public.”
The WIC program’s recent response to the COVID-19 crisis demonstrates that the public can rely on them in times of need. Within three weeks of the governor’s emergency order, the 26-member team was able to transition from face-to-face interactions to remote work and drive-thru service.
“When you work for WIC, resourcefulness, flexibility and adaptability are three very important skill sets regardless of providing service in the middle of a pandemic,” said Dean-Wood. “Our fearless team is very accustomed to quick changes when we encounter problems with our technology or environment. However, this has probably been the most dramatic shift in service delivery methods in WIC’s history.”
Due to increasing economic insecurity, WIC has seen an uptick in enrollments. Since February, an additional 400 families have become recipients. For those in need, this support can be a lifeline. So it is reassuring that WIC leadership and Macomb County Health Department officials are committed to operating virtually and with curbside service for as long as necessary.
“We’re proud to continue to provide access to WIC benefits to eligible families, especially during these challenging times,” said William Ridella, director/health officer of the Macomb County Health Department. “We understand that many county residents’ income may have been affected by recent events, and they may benefit from this program. If you are pregnant, recently had a baby or have an infant or child under the age of five, you may be qualified to receive WIC services, and we encourage you to contact us and enroll in this valuable program.”
Though the future is uncertain for many, one thing is clear: WIC will stay open and it will continue providing support for the most vulnerable in our community.
Interested applicants can contact the WIC office at (586) 469-5471 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Experienced staff will perform an initial screening to check for eligibility and an appointment will be given to complete the application. During the appointment (currently by phone, but normally in-office), applicants must provide required documentation to prove their eligibility and undergo a basic health screening with an emphasis on maternal-child health indicators most commonly affected by nutrition. Applicants will receive their WIC EBT card the same day they are enrolled, and can start shopping right away. During the COVID-19 pandemic, EBT cards are either being mailed or can be picked up the same day through a no-contact curbside process.
Megan Ochmanek is a communications specialist for Macomb County Planning and Economic Development.