Barton County Health Department Administrator Lily M Aikings and Beverly Frizell, RD work every day to ensure babies in Barton County get off to the healthiest start possible. They are in charge of the local Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) up to 5 years old. WIC focuses on providing food assistance and education, and has been around since 1969. The Great Bend office administers the program over a five county area that includes Barton, Pawnee, Rush, Rice and Stafford counties.
Beverly Frizell, a registered dietician and WIC supervisor oversees the program in all five counties. She is assisted by Mary Waite, another WIC certified registered dietician. They split the counties and two days a week they are on the road.
“We’ve always had a good enrollment in that program. It is to help new moms learn to eat correctly, to supplement their diet, and make sure they get a good start with that baby,” Aikings said. Income is one of the main criteria for eligibility.
Of those who qualify and take part, Barton County alone serves 900 people, both moms and kids, Aikings said. No studies have been done to determine the total number of those who could qualify but do not participate, but Frizell feels the word is getting out because there are between 300 and 450 births per year reported in the county.
“We’re serving a good percentage of those who are in the low income category and have some medical issues,” she said.
Word gets out through referrals within the health department and through other agencies, and from mother to mother. When a woman comes in for a pregnancy screening, if the results are positive, it presents an ideal opportunity to follow up with information about the program.
Future health savings
To be part of the WIC program, participants need to have periodic certification appointments. At these visits, their height, weight, and hemoglobin measurements are taken and recorded, and they are interviewed and receive nutritional education. This helps to pinpoint current health needs and to help participants avoid future health issues.
“It’s not just a handout with foods. They have to come for the nutrition education as well. Its a very big focus of our program.” Bev said. “If they want their checks, its required.”
The WIC program is only one of several programs administered at the Health Department. “Our mission is to provide a healthy environment for people to live, and if we can start babies out with good, healthy pregnant mommas, and help them through that period of “how do I feed my baby” and “what does all of this mean,” and get them started better, it will decrease costs later when they get into school, help them to avoid medical problems later on. Its a key part to ensure they have good chances early on.
The checks specify a particular amount and type of food, rather than a dollar amount. The only exception is the vouchers for fresh fruits and vegetables, which specify a dollar amount, and participants can purchase any produce they desire.
“We are very careful that whatever we pay for with taxpayers money is very nutritious and provides good quality nutrition,” Frizell said. “It doesn’t buy a full month’s supply, but it helps.”
The addition of fresh produce in the last three years helps WIC put it’s money where it’s mouth is, Frizell said.
Childhood obesity and health
“Now that we are recognizing that we have a problem with obesity, even in our children, WIC has added a certain dollar amount to buy fruits and vegetables. We’ve also added whole grains to the checks,” she said. “As dieticians, we were recommending that people eat more of these types of foods, but WIC had not supported that until recently. Now we’re backing up our assertions with the foods we provide and recommend.”
Frizell and Waite have been monitoring the percentage of obese children in the program, but data has not been collected long enough to determine if these new additions to the program are helping to rein these percentages back.
“When we started talking about obesity as a health issue early on, we looked at the children in our program that are already overweight,” she said. “It was enough to make us realize it was noticeable, and not something we ever before worried about for preschoolers.”
Access to food
We are not in a food desert here in Barton County,, Aikings said, but some of the counties Frizell and Waite serve, particularly Rush and Pawnee, each with only one grocery store in the county, are. For towns surrounding Great Bend, like Ellinwood, Hoisington and Claflin, there are grocery stores in town that accept WIC checks. For other towns, though transportation may be an issue for some clients, Frizell says she has not heard complaints from participants about access.
Scarcity of a grocery store often means higher prices at the checkout, but WIC checks are not for a given dollar amount. Rather, they specify an amount and type of food. For example, a check may say you can have 32 oz. of cereal or one dozen of eggs. It’s very specific. It doesn’t matter if recipients are shopping in Stafford county or Great Bend and there is a difference in pricing, they can still go home with the same sack of groceries.
The only check that is different is the fruit and vegetable check. It is a dollar amount, so we urge them to consider this when choosing. “You’re going to get more from the check if you avoid using it on, say, a pint of blackberries out of season,” Bev said. But if they really want the blackberries, there’s nothing stopping them from choosing them.
WIC versus EBT cards
On March 24, the Kansas City Star ran a story on food stamp fraud, describing a practice in which recipients illegally sell their electronic benefits transfer (EBT) cards for cash, and then ask for replacement cards. Aikings said WIC works differently, so fraud is lessened.
“WIC checks list the name of who can cash them, and stores can require identification,” she said. We really don’t have a problem with people giving their checks to someone else.”
Frizell says they have suspected on occasion recipients trying to take WIC foods back for refunds. Especially formula.
“They will say the doctor changed their formula, and sometimes that is legitimate, but the stores now have policies that require a receipt before they can accept returns on formula, and the receipt will indicate it was purchased with a WIC check.” she said. Many stores now send those customers back to the health department in those instances.
WIC and the vaccination program are the two most critical programs the Barton County Health Department administers, Aikings said. The number of people served means in the event of a disaster, finding a way to ensure there is food for babies and young children would be a critical priority.
“This isn’t something easily substituted,” she said. “If we blew away, this is one program we would have to continue somehow.”