The COVID-19 pandemic has completely reshaped the way we live our lives, from how we get groceries to how and where children learn. For families who rely on federal nutrition programs, the pandemic has changed the way they receive the services they need to lead a healthy life.
The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infant, and Children (WIC) serves about 6.3 million people, including half of all infants born in the United States. In response to COVID-19, WIC program offices are coming up with new ways to serve clients safely and effectively, while adhering to social distancing guidelines.
To get a better understanding of these new program innovations we sat down with Anny Uddin, Chief Nutritionist at St. Joseph’s WIC program office in Paterson, New Jersey.
“E-Prescriptions” for Community Resources
Fortunately, the St. Joseph’s WIC program office started administering some services virtually, via a digital app, before COVID-19 hit the United States.
In 2019, the office was approached by Dr. David Asiamah, director of Clinical & Community Engagement at the Health Coalition of Passaic County (HCPC), who proposed that the WIC office use NowPow, a digital app that “e-prescribes” WIC participants resources just like a doctor would prescribe a medication virtually.
The NowPow tool provides continuously vetted community resources in a client’s preferred language and fosters a heightened level of accountability among partners. Particularly when using the tracked referral capability, WIC staff can communicate securely with partners, confirm clients received a service, and monitor how long it takes from initial referral to completion.
While WIC participants used to come into the WIC office to get community resource referrals, now, because of NowPow, a lot of the referral program aspects can be done from the safety of their own homes.
“NowPow completely reshaped the way participants interacted with the office and how they received the services. It has become invaluable at a time when stay-at-home orders were put in place during COVID-19,” said Anny Uddin, Chief Nutritionist at St. Joseph’s WIC office.
Referrals are delivered via text message, which is popular with participants. For example, participants mentioned that it was easier for them to keep track of their prescriptions, appointment reminders, referrals, and other information because they were easily accessible from their own phones. They weren’t having to leave the office with tons of paperwork, which could easily get lost. Also by administering referrals virtually, participants can access benefits without having to put themselves or their families at risk by having traditional, in-person visits to the WIC office.
“NowPow isn’t just an extra componet of our program. It’s an enhancement. It has become 30 seconds to a minute more time with the client, but it’s so worth it, because in the end it works. We see it on their faces when clients come in. They’ll show you their phone and tell you: ‘Last time you gave me this, and I went there and they were really helpful. Do you think this time I can get any other type of resource assistance? It’s real feedback from real people. And in the time of the pandemic, it really showed it. It was just amazing.”
One of the community resources available on NowPow was CUMAC, an anti-hunger and community building organization in Paterson. Although Anny knew about CUMAC before COVID-19, it was another support that became invaluable to the St. Joseph’s WIC office’s operations and to the participants themselves.
CUMAC’s Executive Director Mark Dinglasan understands that this is a time when grocery stores are harder to get to and less safe for customers, but that expectant and new mothers need access to healthy food more than ever before. Mark incorporated this need into the organization’s pandemic relief efforts, and asked Anny if he could help mitigate COVID-19 challenges with new moms.
CUMAC recruited volunteers from the community, including the First Lady of New Jersey, to prepare WIC food boxes, which CUMAC delivers (curbside) every two weeks to families enrolled in WIC. The boxes are filled with high quality, shelf stable food specific to pregnant and nursing mothers and are paired with fruits, vegetables, and other supplemental food and are designed to last for 7-10 days.
The road to recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to present challenges, and the demand for WIC services will continue to increase. Anny and her staff, supported by partners such as HCPC and CUMAC, are committed to ensuring that WIC participants impacted by COVID-19 have what they need to be healthy and happy.
The Family First Coronavirus Response Act provided $500 million in funding to enable WIC to improve access to nutritious foods among pregnant women with low incomes, or for mothers with young children who lost their jobs or were laid off due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Obesity Rates Decline Among WIC Participants
See the latest data showing the decline in obesity rates in 41 states and territories among young children enrolled in WIC.
Supporting Health in Early Childhood During COVID-19
We spoke to the National WIC Association and Food Research & Action Center to better understand how WIC is responding to the pandemic.