“We’re in uncharted territory,” said Chris Gilliam, administrator of the Howell County Health Department, during the department’s monthly board meeting.
Gilliam informed the board during Tuesday's session that the number of active participants in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Woman, Infants and Children, widely known as WIC, is down in the county.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had a case load this small in the 17 years I’ve been here,” Gilliam observed.
He explained that the total number of families using the WIC program had fallen below 1,200; the expected for the month is about 1,475. If the trend continues, he said, the health department could see a cut in WIC funding for next year.
According to Gilliam, the possible drop in funding does not mean families would be kicked off WIC or be turned away from signing up for it.
“If someone is eligible and signs up, we will make sure they are able to get assistance, and if we have more sign up than our WIC funding allows, we would dip into our general revenue to pay for it,” Gilliam explained. WIC funding, he said, works as a reimbursement contract and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which provides the funding, sets a yearly target goal based on previous years' numbers and other factors.
The yearly goal for the Howell County Health Department was to have 17,699 total families, about 1,475 each month, actively participating in WIC. However, Gilliam says, the department is well below that goal.
“Our contract year ends in September and, so far, we are at 11,933,” he said. “Clearly we are not going to make our goal by September.”
WIC is a USDA program administered by the Food and Nutrition Service and designed to help provide nutritious foods, nutrition education, health screenings and other support to low-income pregnant or postpartum women, breastfeeding women and children younger than 5.
According to Gilliam, the numbers of participants in WIC have been falling for the last five months straight.
“Usually, we would see the numbers rebound, but never keep falling this much,” Gilliam told the Quill by phone Wednesday.
He explained that he believes there are a number of reasons for this drop, some of them being that other USDA programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Farmers to Families Food Box program, are offering more flexibility and are meeting some of the needs of people who might otherwise also actively participate in WIC.
“Right now, SNAP is offering more than their usual benefits and it’s easier to sign up for,” Gilliam said. In addition, the Farmers to Families Food Box program, coordinated in West Plains by Ozarks Christian Academy, 210 Allen St, distributes free boxes of fresh fruit and vegetables on a first-come, first-serve basis to everybody weekly.
Gilliam said the number of options available has led to some to take the path of least resistance when seeking assistance.
“We advise using WIC in addition to SNAP in order to stretch out your food dollar,” he said. WIC’s voucher program doesn’t cover some items that would be covered by SNAP and Gilliam said he would advise using WIC to get those essentials first and then use SNAP for those that WIC doesn’t cover.
“One thing that I hope will improve our WIC numbers, is the WIC card, which will replace the old vouchers,” Gilliam said, adding that the new card will be similar in function to SNAP’s electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards.
“COVID has slowed down the rollout of the WIC cards, but I think we should see them being issued in Howell County by the end of the summer,” Gilliam said.
Gilliam encourages anyone who qualifies for WIC assistance to sign up, as there are more services offered under the WIC program for those who could use it.
“It’s a good program that provides a lot of needed assistance and can make the difference for some people,” he said.
For more information or to register for WIC in Howell County call the Howell County Health Department at 256-7078 or visit the department's website at howellcountyhealth.com.