Food program faces stigmas, barriers
For nearly 15 years, anyone in Summit County seeking assistance through a decades-old federal food-program has met with Jennifer Morrill.
On a daily basis, Morrill sits down with applicants to determine if they qualify for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, commonly referred to as WIC. State health departments administer the program to provide healthy foods, education and referrals for lower-income women and families.
From single, pregnant mothers to struggling multi-member families, the Summit County Health Department WIC director, says she sees every variation of the modern family. A misconception most people have, she says, is that WIC is only for the "low-low income and it’s just a formula (baby food) program."
"It’s so much more than that," she said. "Most of what we see aren’t single women here. It will be a complete family. It’s focused on women, infants and children, but if they are trying to provide for the family, this is one of the tools they can use."
Over the years, Morrill said she has noticed a steady decline in the number of residents seeking WIC services. Cases in Summit County have dropped from a yearly average of 700 participants in the 90s to approximately 500 within the last several years, she said.
"We used to have a larger caseload," Morrill said. "But within the past five years, it has considerably shrunk and we have definitely lost participation. We are trying to get the word out that we are still here to provide those great things that it can provide."
Rich Bullough, Summit County Health Department director, said the county’s numbers have been flat. However, Bullough said participation "ebbs and flows" with assistance programs.
"We see programs, like WIC, where demand increases during a poor economy," Bullough said. "When the economy was bad, our numbers went up."
Last year, the federal dollar amount provided to Summit County through WIC was $504, 465.
The ease of using electronic food stamps and its minimal requirements may also be contributing to WIC’s declining numbers, Bullough said. Unlike its cousin, food stamps, the WIC program is somewhat more cumbersome to use.
WIC participants are subject to interviews and health screenings to measure kids’ growth. There are also eligibility guidelines that require that participants" incomes fall at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level.
"One of the things that has frustrated us in the last few years is while food stamps are important, they have become increasingly easy to obtain," he said. "And it has, in turn, prevented people from accessing WIC, which is more than a program that provides food and vouchers. It provides a foundation for eating healthy food for a lifetime.
"It’s one of the few federal programs, in my opinion, that doesn’t just focus on providing a commodity," he added. "And that’s another barrier because people want this to be easy."
The Health Department is seeking to change the conversation around WIC, Bullough said. He said the Health Department wants to engage the various communities and "grow the program" from the notion that it’s solely a food program.
"We’re at a juncture now where we can really do that," he said. "And communities may not fully know that it’s an education program or understand what it is or that we have clinics in the different areas. So it really is under-utilized."
Health Department officials met last week to begin discussing how to promote the program and remove the stigma commonly attached to it.
"We are hoping to really start talking about this community-wide to break down those perceptions," Bullough said.
Within the next several years, the federal government will be updating the program to establish an electronic voucher system, Bullough said, adding that the county’s program already features online services.
"We know there are families that can benefit that, for some reason or another, are not accessing it," he said.
For more information about the county’s WIC program go to http://www.summitcountyhealth.org or contact Health Director Rich Bullough at 435-333-1582 or WIC director Jennifer Morrill at 435-333-1500.
Meredith Reed was elected to a two-year term as chair of the Summit County Democratic Party and said she sees an opportunity to ride the so-called blue wave that saw a Democratic surge nationally and within the state.