HAWAIIAN GARDENS — "Do you know why we give you coupons for peanut butter?"
The question, asked in Spanish, was directed to about 30 women seated in four rows of metal folding chairs for a mini-nutrition class at the city's Social Services Building. It was a warm afternoon in a room without air conditioning, and many of the women fanned themselves while bouncing youngsters on one knee to keep them quiet.
The instructor, with about 10 minutes to lead the class, did not wait for the women to volunteer an answer.
"It's for the protein," she said, raising her voice to be heard over the wails of several children. "Who needs protein? We all do."
The nutritional value of peanut butter was news to some of the women. "I didn't know that," one whispered to another. "I figured peanut butter would be bad because it's sweet."
Educating low-income women about nutrition for themselves and their children is the mission of the federal WIC program (the initials stand for women, infants and children), which each month serves more than 15,000 people in Southeast Los Angeles County.
The program provides food vouchers and nutrition counseling at centers that rotate from a Whittier community center to a church in Pico Rivera to a health clinic in Bellflower to other sites in Compton, Cudahy and Huntington Park.
At a time when many federal social services are being cut, WIC has received some good news: The government has increased funding so that about 3,500 more Southeast women and children can sign up, program officials said. But overall, officials estimate that WIC only reaches about 20% of eligible women and children.
Now, the problem is getting the word out through local health clinics and other agencies that more money is available, said Diane Woloshin, a supervising nutritionist with WIC. Most women find out about the program through word of mouth, she said.
For instance, Josie Cooper of Norwalk learned about WIC from a friend. When she uses her food vouchers at the grocery store, Cooper said women often ask her where she got the coupons.
"They would ask me, 'Are those food stamps?' " said Cooper, 22, who is five months pregnant with her third child. "And I would say no, and tell them about WIC and where to go. They would say, 'I never knew about that.' "
WIC food vouchers differ from food stamps in that they can only be used to buy specific foods. Pregnant mothers receive coupon packets to purchase high protein foods such as beans and peanut butter. Once the child is born, the mother will receive coupons for baby formula as well as for her own nutrition. Separate packets are issued for infants, with the monthly value of each packet ranging from $30 to $60, Woloshin said.
Even with help from WIC, Cooper said it was hard to get by on about $600 a month after her first child was born.
"There would be times when I would run out of formula, then I would buy the little cans and make them last," said Cooper, with one arm around 3-year-old Duane as she waited for her monthly WIC appointment at the Social Services center. "This helped me out a lot."
Cooper said her first visit to a WIC clinic was confusing because of the apparent chaos. Women, some with crying children, sit in metal folding chairs waiting for their appointments.
Clerks seated behind an oblong banquet table call the women one by one, asking about any medical problems before signing over coupons for the month. The nutrition classes, in Spanish and English, take place a few feet away where chairs are arranged in front of a bulletin board.
At another table, Woloshin asked a pregnant woman if she planned to breast feed.
"The problem is, I'm going back to work. I can't," the woman said.
"Mother's milk contains a lot of nutrients that can protect your baby in a way formula can't," Woloshin said, but the woman had made up her mind. So Woloshin urged her to keep health records for herself and the baby, and then she called the next name on the list.
"It's kind of a short counseling session, but it's the best we can do with so many ladies here," Woloshin said. "We try and get them in and out in about an hour."
Although WIC clinics may be crowded and noisy at times, Woloshin said the attitude there differs from other public assistance programs in several respects--most significantly that WIC is an almost entirely female environment.
"When I was pregnant, the nutritionist I had was a man," said Maria Ramirez, 30, of Norwalk, who enrolled in WIC about five years ago before becoming a clerk for the agency. "He explained to me how to breast feed . . . and I was so embarrassed I could hardly look at him."
WIC also differs in its requirements for enrollment. The main requirement for the program is that a doctor or nutritionist determine that a woman or her children, up to age 5, are at nutritional risk. The medical evaluation includes checking for anemia as well as growth and developmental retardation.
Virtually all women who are pregnant or have recently given birth are eligible provided their income is low enough, Woloshin said. For a pregnant woman with one child, the household's monthly income cannot exceed $1,116.
Other than requiring medical exams every six months, the program's standards are fairly relaxed, Woloshin said. Workers, most of whom speak English and Spanish, accept the womens' word about income level and ask no questions about citizenship.
"We're more service-oriented than we are rules-and-regulations oriented," she said.
For more information about WIC in the Southeast area, call 757-0191 or (818) 570-8823.