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Valley Perspective | PERSPECTIVE ON FOOD AID

Leaner Times Loom for WIC

Government and society can't afford to shortchange the vital program that helps feed mothers and children.

May 25, 1997|DONNA MUNGEN | Donna Mungen is an Altadena freelance writer

Northeast Valley Health Corp., the local administrator of the federal WIC supplemental nutrition program for poor women and children, recently received from Congress what appears to be a partial funding reprieve.

After a contentious battle that included histrionics and flame-throwing speeches on both sides, the House Appropriations Committee on May 15 approved a supplemental spending measure to provide an additional $76 million nationally for WIC through Sept. 30. The extra money is needed because program participation has been greater this year than anticipated. And although the House sum is significantly less than the $100 million originally proposed by President Clinton, it is more than the $38 million advocated by some Republicans.

Even so, the battle for WIC--the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children--in the Valley and in the nation is hardly over. The Senate version of the supplemental funding measure is for only $58 million, with the two figures yet to be resolved by congressional conference committee. There also remains the possibility of presidential veto.

And although it's currently difficult to find many critics of WIC, which has an outstanding track record, in the prevailing punitive political climate, there seems to be a tendency toward punishing the needy. For countless WIC recipients, there is truly little to celebrate.

Here is why: Northeast Valley Health's WIC program, 10 clinics stretching from Glendale to the Santa Clarita Valley, is the third-largest in the state, serving about 62,000 poor women and their children up to age 5. It plays a critical role in feeding a sector of society with significant and well-defined nutritional risks.

But even if congressional funding for the national program is boosted by the House-approved $76 million, as of Sept. 30, 4,000 San Fernando Valley area WIC recipients will be cut from the WIC roster. And should the conference committee decide to pare back the supplement, even more Valley area residents will be adversely impacted.

Eloise Jenks, director of the WIC office that serves parts of Los Angeles and Orange Counties, has already instructed her staff to give top priority to pregnant women and young infants. Non-lactating mothers and children who are not at a dietary risk will be eliminated from the program.

As the nation moves away from supporting programs that help the poor, any reduction in WIC services appears short-sighted governmental policy.

Program participants receive, on average, food vouchers worth only about $35 a month. These are redeemable at retail markets for certain approved, nutritious foods such as peanut butter, milk, cheese, infant formula and beans.

As a prevention program, WIC has repeatedly demonstrated that for every $1 it spends, down the line it saves $3 in Medi-Cal or Medicaid expenses.

Its benefits also extend to other areas that are more difficult to quantify. Presently WIC recipients are screened over the phone and then complete eligibility processing at one of the clinics. While on site, recipients are required to participate in training classes. And according to Gayle Schachne, the Northeast Valley WIC project director, the classes are comprehensive and an important part of the program.

"We teach the women about food preparation, taking care of their children and the importance of immunizations," Schachne said.

Also, because WIC clinics operate somewhat like community centers, they frequently refer their clients to other social services resources and agencies.

The user-friendly, decentralized approach of WIC has substantially helped to minimize, if not eradicate, hunger among a large segment of the population in the Northeast Valley.

Gov. Pete Wilson, who during the pugnacious Proposition 187 battle originally expressed sentiments against undocumented immigrants receiving any governmental support, has of late changed his tune.

Earlier this month, in a letter to Rep. Bob Livingston, (R-La.) chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, the governor noted that about 1.25 million California women and children are served by WIC. Wilson acknowledged the difficult budget decisions Congress faces, but he added that for the state to maintain its current level of services, "California alone requires an additional $26.7 million in supplemental federal funding."

Continuation of the WIC program at the highest funding level is paramount not only to the long-term well-being of participants, but is also in the best interest of all the residents of the San Fernando Valley.

We know that a hungry child cannot learn, is susceptible to a host of childhood diseases and faces the prospects of a mentally and physically compromised future.

As stated by administrator Schachne, the WIC program is "good for our health, good for our economy and not that expensive to help keep others healthy."

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