County WIC benefits assured through end of the month

The government shutdown almost had dire consequences for the nearly 5,000 Grays Harbor women and children who rely on the Women, Infants & Children program.

WIC helps them with nutrition assistance, health referrals and breastfeeding support each month.

After the federal government shutdown Tuesday, Grays Harbor County Health Officials were told the program only had enough funds to keep the WIC program running efficiently for nine days, said Grays Harbor County Public Health and Social Services Director Joan Brewster.

However, on Thursday Brewster and her staff were notified that the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which funds the program, was able to find funds for a 30-day reprieve and now has enough money to continue services through the end of October.

“We want to encourage people to come for their WIC benefits,” said Brewster, who added they are still accepting new participants despite th funding threat. “They may get confused by things they hear in the media. We want to make sure they’re served.”

The program provides a range of benefits for pregnant, breastfeeding and postpartum women, infants and children less than 5 years of age. In Grays Harbor alone, the WIC program — through the county health services and Sea Mar Community Health Center which serves Elma, Ocean Shores and Humptulips — serves 71 percent of infants born, an even higher number than the 58 percent served statewide, according to 2010 statistics from the Washington State Department of Health. In the program the majority of families, 75 percent, are living in poverty.

A family of four living in poverty who receives assistance from the WIC program earns $1,838 a month or less — even though 58 percent of them are working, according to the 2010 statistics. In 2010, the program served 3,473 infants and children and 1,337 women in Grays Harbor.

“We have a high-poverty population, one in four children live in poverty on Grays Harbor,” said Brewster, who said vouchers given to mothers of children who have moved on to solid food go toward “nutritious items” such as infant formula, fresh vegetables and fruits, cheese, grains and other foods. “If a family is food insecure, they don’t have enough to eat or don’t know how they’re going to feed themselves for their next meal. We know that for a child to develop well they need to have good, nutritious food. If a household is not able to (have those things) it is a huge stress, and it can harm development.”

In order to receive vouchers, families spend time with one of the county’s staff, including nurses who weigh and check infants, and consult with mothers about nutrition options.

Brewster points out that, aside from being of necessity to so many women and children, the program has a large economic impact on the county.

“The WIC program is one of the best proven programs in everything that’s done in health and social services,” she said, adding if the program were to be suspended indefinitely it would harm to the community. “Research says that for every dollar spend on WIC we are saving 4 dollars or more on other services.”

The program also brings in about $2 million per year to the local economy through the vouchers and a couple thousand dollars to farmers who receive funds through the program’s Farmers Market Nutrition Program.

As of now, the county does not have plans for if the shutdown is to continue past the end of October, according to Brewster.

“If we believed we had to stop we would have to do a massive communication effort,” she said, adding that they have a “lot of staff” working in the WIC program, though only about six are designated as full-time employees with the county.