Over the past two years, North Carolina saw a 21 percent increase in participation in the federal Women, Infants and Children program, according to an October study by the Food Research & Action Center. The state had the largest increase in participation in the country.
The WIC program provides nutrition, breastfeeding and food information resources to pregnant women and mothers with young children, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.
The FRAC study looked at data from February 2020 to February 2022.
She added that before the COVID-19 pandemic, participation among children was low because they wouldn’t come in person to get nutrition education and food benefit issuance. Health’s Nutrition Services Branch and the director of the state WIC program, explained.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, people have been allowed to enroll and re-enroll in WIC without going to a WIC clinic in person.
Since June 2021, the program has received increased benefits that allow participants to buy fresh produce.
“I think many of the flexibilities that we've taken advantage of that the USDA has offered throughout the pandemic has really helped us bring WIC to North Carolina in a more modern way,” Burghardt said.
She added that, before the COVID-19 pandemic, participation among children was low because they wouldn’t come in person to get nutrition education and food benefit issuance.
According to the NCDHHS, a person wishing to participate in the WIC program must live in North Carolina, meet the income eligibility requirements and be considered at nutritional risk. The two main kinds of nutritional risks considered in WIC eligibility are medically-based risks — such as anemia, being underweight, a history of pregnancy complications, etc. — and diet-based risks caused by an inadequate dietary pattern.
Income eligibility varies depending on the size of the family, and a free nutritional risk assessment is often done at a WIC office.
Dynasty Cash, a program participant and stay-at-home mom, said she first learned about WIC about ten years ago when she had her first daughter. She learned how much she should be feeding her baby through the program, she added.
“It helped tremendously,” she said.
Now, Cash said she has a two-month-old and has received help from WIC with switching his formula. The organization has assisted her with food, benefits and buying things at the farmer’s market, she explained.
She said she uses the Bnft app to scan an item and see if it’s WIC-approved, which makes it easier to get information on items.
Alisha Bailey, the WIC and breastfeeding programs manager at Piedmont Health, said WIC also wants to make sure families feel safe in their homes and have access to safe water and transportation. She said that WIC wants to make sure the whole community has access to resources to ensure the best possible outcomes.
“We're able really to offer full-range WIC services, either enrollments or kind of like maintenance services, by phone or video chat,” Bailey said.
She said she thinks these options have helped bypass barriers to participation, including transportation and work schedules, so WIC can help people who weren’t able to participate before.
Bailey added that the increased cash value benefits for families have coincided with the rise in food prices. Without those increased benefits, she thinks some families might not have been able to afford the current price of produce with the previous aid amounts.
Bailey said she thinks many people in the WIC sphere want to see changes in the WIC food packages and added that she thinks the small amount of money allocated for fresh produce isn’t ideal.
“I'm hopeful that this increased amount that came with COVID funding is something that becomes permanent because I think that our families have really taken advantage of the ability to buy a lot more fresh produce than they were before,” she said.
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