SANTA ANA — More than 3,000 needy children--some at high risk of suffering health problems--are being taken off a federal nutrition program because the demand for services in Orange County far outstrips available resources.
The state's Health Services Department, which administers the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, has mandated that the county reduce caseloads by more than 3,400, or 15%, by February.
While other counties are also being asked to trim their programs, which serve low-income pregnant women and children who qualify, social service officials say Orange County is faring worse than any other area of the state.
"It's been a general phenomenon over the last two or three years that the demand here has exceeded the state's ability to give us money," said county WIC coordinator Michelle Van Eyken.
If the program were fully funded by the federal government, officials say, the county could serve three times as many mothers and children. County officials estimate that more than 22,800 people will be served by the program in December.
Van Eyken and statewide WIC coordinator Phyllis Bramson said that Orange County, of all the counties in the state, has the greatest proportion of people who qualify for the program for pregnant or breast-feeding women, infants and preschoolers but cannot be served by it.
WIC funding is short of matching the need at both the county and state levels, partly because allocations are based on 1980 census data. The county in the past five years has seen a significant increase in needy families, officials said. And while Orange County's take has been increased, they said, it has not kept pace with the rapid growth and demographic changes that have transformed the county into a major urban center and placed acute stress on social welfare programs.
More than 570,000 women and children are enrolled in the program statewide. Officials say federal allocations from the U.S. Department of Agriculture provided $55 million to administer the program and $175 million in food grants.
Orange County receives the equivalent of about $6 million a month in food vouchers or coupons.
The WIC program provides its clients with coupons worth about $65 that can be redeemed monthly at about 400 local outlets for fresh milk, cheese, eggs, peanut butter, dried beans, juices, cereals and other staples, as well as infant formula. Clients also receive nutrition education and medical checkups.
Priority for services is given to pregnant or breast-feeding women, then to infants and children under 5.
No other county in the state has had to refuse benefits to eligible infants, as Orange County is doing, said the two coordinators. The county has already begun eliminating from the program about 3,000 children over the age of 12 months, and all should be removed by February, Van Eyken said.
Participation in the WIC program has grown by more than 40% in the county in the past two years, fueled mostly by the dramatic demographic changes.
The county's Asian population, for example, grew by 117% from 1980 to 1990 and the number of Latinos grew by 97% in the same period, both outstripping the rate of growth in the state as a whole.
Many of these new county residents are poor or of low income and depend on federal, state and local assistance programs.
At a WIC clinic in Santa Ana on Thursday, many women who arrived for coupons were told for the first time that their children would no longer be eligible for the program.
"We don't know what we're going to do now," said Alma De Rosas, 21, whose 16-month-old baby Dennise has been enrolled in the program since birth.
De Rosas and her husband, Alvaro, an unemployed construction worker, live in a house in Orange with four other families, she said. The couple have barely been able to make ends meet and have relied on WIC coupons to provide milk and expensive infant formula for their daughter. De Rosas said she fears the baby will suffer now.
"We gave her a lot of cereal that is her favorite food and she still takes a bottle at night," said de Rosas. "Sometimes we have had to depend on friends to borrow money and maybe that is what we will have to do now."
The WIC cutbacks are especially frustrating for local officials because studies have shown WIC to be one of the most cost-effective social programs.
"We're basically throwing away money now because we're not keeping babies healthy," said Van Eyken.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, in a recent study, found that for each dollar that the Women, Infants and Children program spends on prenatal programs, there was a later saving of $1.92 to $4.21 in Medicaid expenditures.
The report found that Medicaid-eligible women who participated in WIC during their pregnancies gave birth to fewer premature babies, that their babies were larger and that mothers and infants had lower Medicaid costs during the first 60 days after a baby's birth.