Tuesday, June 6, 2017

WIC helps improve the health of low income families

Program improvements meet federal requirements, vendor moratorium lifted

Author: Bruce Boyea, Director, Bureau of Nutritional Services

In Louisiana, as well as in all other states, research has shown that the program known as WIC, shorthand for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, is a funding investment that is cost-effective and improves the health status of infants and children. WIC is a federal program – run by the United States Department of Agriculture – that is administered at the state level by the Office of Public Health in Louisiana.

According to the USDA, WIC promotes healthy birth outcomes and early child development by providing food packages, health screenings and referrals, breastfeeding promotion and support. It also provides nutrition education for low-income pregnant, breastfeeding and postpartum women, infants, and children up to five years of age who are found to be at nutritional risk.

For a successful WIC program, there are multiple levels of requirements that states must meet to administer the program, and there are eligibility requirements for individuals in order to qualify for the program. 

For individuals, eligibility is based on income. Those who are eligible for Medicaid, supplemental nutrition assistance benefits (SNAP or food stamps), or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families qualify for WIC. The current eligibility guidelines can be found here.

To access food through the WIC program, participants shop for their food items at Authorized Vendors. Typically, WIC vendors are grocery stores and supermarkets as well as large discount stores like Wal Mart and Target. We are constantly working to enroll vendors so that participants can easily find a store in their community or neighborhood.

Vendor Moratorium Imposed

On May 2, 2014, The USDA’s Food Nutrition Service (FNS) notified the Department of Health and the past WIC administration that they had found problems in how the Louisiana WIC was managing its vendor management system. The penalty was to place a moratorium on accepting new WIC vendors.

This moratorium also resulted in the loss of nearly 200 vendors. This was because if an enrolled vendor made a change in their agreement (such as changing location), they were required to reapply. With the moratorium, those applications could not be approved.  

Losing 200 vendors created a significant hardship for some participants who had to travel longer distances to access nutritious foods such as infant formula, fruits and vegetables, eggs and milk, fish, juice and cereal.

As soon as the moratorium was put in place, the state WIC staff, in partnership with the USDA went to work to resolve the management issues. A joint task force was formed, and this team began the arduous task of correcting the deficiencies outlined in the moratorium letter. In many ways, the moratorium improved the working relationship between the state and our federal partners. Since then, this task force has devoted considerable time and resources to implementing corrective actions designed to improve, preserve and promote high standards of integrity in the WIC program.

When the moratorium was put in place, I was the senior program integrity specialist for the USDA in the Southwest Region. In that position, I was responsible for assessing Louisiana’s WIC program integrity capabilities, as well as providing technical assistance and guidance. I was aware of major deficiencies in the WIC Management Information System and with human resource issues.

Then, in 2016, Louisiana’s Bureau of Nutrition Services opened the job search for a new director, and I applied. I saw this as a unique opportunity to correct a program that I was intimately familiar with because I had first-hand knowledge of the problems. I came to my interview with a plan to correct the problem, and was hired last May.

The plan that was implemented had three key components: program stabilization, program integrity and growth. Another priority built into each of these components was to create a sustainable program built on national best practices.

Moratorium Lifted

In less than a year, our plan was developed and implemented, and on May 16 of this year, Gov. John Bel Edwards received a letter notifying us that the USDA had fully lifted the federal moratorium.

In a statement, the governor recognized LDH Secretary Dr. Rebekah Gee and the WIC staff for the work that restored the WIC program. I concur with the governor, and applaud the work of our team and our federal partners.

Currently, we have 502 vendors enrolled as WIC vendors. The program serves an average of 126,000 participants each month.

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