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 participate in 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 across the country are coming up with new ways to serve clients safely and effectively, while adhering to social distancing guidelines.
Anny Uddin is the Chief Nutritionist for the WIC program at St. Joseph’s Health in Paterson, New Jersey. Paterson is a diverse city in northern New Jersey. It’s the third largest city in the state and one of the most densely populated cities in the country.
“We do everything virtually now because of COVID. The biggest challenge we have is to do everything we need to do from one central location. We’re trying to meet moms with their needs and families with their needs when they’re trying to do virtual schooling, they’re trying to maintain a job, they’re trying to get to the appointments that they need as well.”
Changing Practices Through the Pandemic
Because of social distancing requirements in place during the pandemic, the WIC office where Uddin works has changed its practices in several important ways. Staff used to meet with clients face to face. Now they do the intake, counseling, and nutritional education via phone, email, Zoom, Facetime, or WhatsApp.
Once that process is complete, Uddin and her staff mail WIC vouchers to clients, who can then use them to buy formula and healthy foods and drinks like whole grain bread and milk. But the vouchers can take up to 10 days sometimes to reach families via the mail, so if families are in more urgent situations—running low on formula for instance—then St. Joseph’s staff will meet them outside using appropriate protective measures to keep participants and staff safe.
As one participant said, “I don’t have to be scared that I have to go to the office with my children, or myself. Everything is from home. I feel safer that I can do everything from my phone.”
“E-Prescriptions” for Community Resources
When it comes to conducting some services virtually, the St. Joseph’s WIC office was somewhat ahead of the game when the pandemic struck. They started administering some services virtually in 2019, via a digital app called NowPow. It “e-prescribes” WIC participants resources, including nutrition education and referrals for other agencies, just like a doctor would prescribe a medication.
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,” says Uddin.
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 referrals and other information because they were easily accessible from their own phones. 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 component of our program. It’s an enhancement,” says Uddin. “Participants will 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.”
Expanding Services through Partnerships
The WIC food package includes foods and beverages that are healthy for pregnant or breast-feeding mothers, and can support a healthy early childhood. But at critical times especially in the early months of the pandemic, people were buying many of these items and sometimes WIC participants could not find what they needed.
St. Joseph’s WIC program guides an increasing number of clients by phone through bureaucratic hurdles and helps direct them to stores that have the food they require. There is always a nutritionist in the office to process walk-ins or if moms are in dire need of something. For instance, if a doctor changes a prescription to a special formula, the WIC nutritionist is there to assist that person immediately.
But clients have additional challenges that are pressing in the pandemic. “The need has definitely increased,” says Uddin. In response, St. Joseph’s developed and expanded partnerships with other community organizations.
As an example, one of the community resources available on NowPow was CUMAC, an anti-hunger and community building organization in Paterson. CUMAC’s Executive Director Mark Dinglasan understands that the COVID-19 crisis makes going to grocery stores harder and less safe for many people. At the same time, more people are in need of extra help to ensure their families have enough healthy food. 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 Tammy Snyder, 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 tailored for pregnant and nursing mothers. The boxes also include fruits, vegetables, and other supplemental food and are designed to last for 7-10 days.
WIC staff are uniting with CUMAC and other organizations in Paterson, like the Health Coalition of Passaic County (HCPC) and its Director of Clinical and Community Engagement, Dr. David Asiamah, to provide comprehensive services to meet the mounting challenges their clients face. Dr. Asiamah was also the person who headed the Nowpow application introduction and push for service at St. Joseph’s WIC Program, further proving its force and success within the community.
Uddin believes: This pandemic is the worst thing in the world, but it’s also brought so many organizations together. And it’s shown us all the power in people helping people.
More Flexible Policies Help More Families in Need
Uddin and staff at other WIC offices across the country have been able to see participants remotely because the U.S. Department of Agriculture waived some traditional requirements for in-person certification and service. Those waivers were set to expire on September 30, 2020, but USDA acted to extend them “throughout the national public health emergency.”
With more certainty about how WIC will operate for the foreseeable future, Uddin has begun planning for longer term efforts, and looking forward to future positive progress.
Published on October 14, 2020
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