Sue Chial, a public health coordinator who worked with the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program since 1979, reflected on changes and constants she’s seen with it as she closed out her career with Washington County at the end of 2012.
Some of the changes she’s seen are numbers have grown, a diverse client population and clinics finding homes in county service centers.
The program is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and requires that participants meet income guidelines.
WIC provides nutrition education through nutrition assessments and one-on-one counseling about food, nutrition, and breastfeeding. Public health nurses and dieticians work with clients.
When families qualify following financial guidelines, they receive vouchers to buy healthy foods for pregnant or breastfeeding mothers and their children up to age 5. Chial said that the WIC program benefits from strong support from the county’s Department of Public Health and Environment.
The program grew substantially in the county through 2010, and continues serving about 3,100 clients each month. The current leveling off of participation might be due to Minnesota’s declining birthrate over the last six years, and because more families are participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which also provides financial help with food.
Even with the leveling off of participants, Chial noted positive changes she has seen over the years of providing services for WIC clients.
The program encourages and coaches mothers to breast feed, which has increased over the years. It is especially successful among mothers who have participated in WIC programs before their babies are born.
Through the years, the program has become more client-centered, Chial said, with more time and effort spent listening to the clients’ concerns and providing a caring ear, as well as professional advice.
Chial said that she has also seen more mothers with at-risk babies, such as premature babies, in the program. WIC participant diversity has reflected the changes in the county’s population, with more diversity in its ethnic and cultural makeup. Chial has also seen a growth in the number of mothers who are working or attending school.
Transportation remains a challenge for clients. Getting clients to WIC clinic appointments and grocery stores has always been a barrier for families.
Child nutrition continues as the program’s focus, Chial said. In recent years, that focus has shifted to averting childhood obesity. Information from the state of Minnesota shows that the rate of obesity in children participating in the WIC program statewide has increased from 8.5 percent in 1990, to a peak of 13.8 percent in 2004. Rates of overweight children followed the same pattern. The rates have dropped slightly since then, and the WIC program continues to promote healthy eating in children in an effort to reduce that rate in the county.
One of the significant changes over the years was the addition of the county service centers in Forest Lake and Cottage Grove. WIC counselors always meet clients in the county’s communities, but the service centers provide a consistent and comprehensive space for clients to visit counselors. Previously, WIC staff would meet clients wherever there was space. Now, clinics are in service centers built for them,
Maggie Domski of Woodbury takes over WIC program coordinator and will continue to emphasize a high-quality, client-focused program. Domski has more than 30 years of experience working in nutrition, and managing programs, and worked with the the county’s WIC program for the last eight years.