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Island County WIC program safe — for now

Despite looming closures to the county’s Women, Infants and Children program, or WIC, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has found funding to allow the national program to operate as usual through the end of October.

The possible halting of WIC services was the result of the federal government shutdown that began Monday, Oct. 1 due to Congress’s inability to adopt a national budget.

The news was a relief to Island County’s WIC programs with offices in Oak Harbor, Langley, Naval Air Station Whidbey Island and on Camano Island.

“I do believe things will work themselves out,” said Suzanne Turner, Island County’s director of community and family health. She said she told her relieved staff at a Thursday morning meeting, “Let’s just put that aside now and move on with serving the community.”

Still, the few days of uncertainty were stressful for both WIC clients and the program’s five staff members who were unsure if they would be laid off.

“It’s been difficult from the staff perspective in the last week,” Turner said. “It’s tough to be placed in such a predicament.”

In addition, said Turner, mothers receiving WIC assistance have been concerned that the nutrition program many rely on would be stopped.

“Some of the moms have shown confusion and have heard stories that WIC will be closing down or their checks won’t be any good,” Turner said.

The Island County Public Health Department was informed by the Washington State Department of Health via email late Wednesday that the USDA had reallocated contingency food funds to cover food costs in every WIC state through the month of October. The funds were expected to be accessible by Oct. 4, the email said.

Johnson said the funding came from the leftover food dollars that each WIC state is required to return to the federal government at the end of each fiscal year. Johnson said some quick accounting by the USDA revealed that they had enough returned funding to cover the month of October.

Commissioner Helen Price Johnson said she was pleased to see that a solution was found for the program that benefits the island’s low-income families.

“These are some of our most vulnerable citizens and it would be a shame if their basic nutritional needs would be threatened by this shutdown,” Price Johnson said. “Providing good nutrition and information to pregnant mothers is the best tax dollars we can spend.”

Island County helps roughly 970 mothers and children through the ages of 5. The NAS Whidbey Island WIC office provides assistance to roughly 820 Navy mothers and children.

“It’s caused a lot of worry among our families about the future,” said Wende Dolstad, WIC coordinator for the NAS Whidbey office, which is administered through Skagit County. “Their immediate concerns have been feeding their families.”

Dolstad said WIC is a particularly good resource for sailors and Navy mothers who may be away from their own families and may not have a support group on the island.

“They can get connected with the resources they need,” Dolstad said. “WIC is becoming known as the place where people get breast feeding support.”

Island County WIC Coordinator Dori Johnson said a Facebook page the county created in January 2012 has been a good way to assuage residents’ concerns and keep families updated.

Johnson said continuing the program is an invaluable service to the community because when low-income mothers have healthy, well-fed infants it leads to savings in health care for the taxpayer in the long term.

“A healthier baby is born, with fewer premature births and health issues,” Johnson said. “So you’ve already ultimately saved everyone money by having a healthy baby.”

While the NEX and the Commissary on base are closed indefinitely, WIC participants can still use their nutrition dollars at any of the island’s major grocers, including Walmart, Saar’s, Albertson’s and Safeway.

WIC provides health and nutrition resources to pregnant women, new mothers, infants and children under five. WIC provides health screening, nutrition education, nutrient-rich foods, breastfeeding support and referrals to other health and social services. The average amount mothers receive from WIC on Whidbey Island is $55 per month.

For more information about WIC and other Island County programs, visit www.islandcountycfhs.org

 

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