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Less than 40% of eligible Ohioans actually use WIC. Can a new strategy change that?

The Marc's grocery store in Kettering will close in February.
Alejandro Figueroa
Many Ohio moms and kids aren't getting the help they are eligible for when it comes to food benefits.

Less than 40% of eligible Ohioans are participating in the Women Infants and Children nutritional program.

This means thousands of Ohioans are missing out on the benefits of the food assistance program, from healthier pregnancies, to breastfeeding support, to improved childhood nutrition.

That's why the USDA has a new national strategy to boost enrollment in WIC. This includes a $29 million boost and an effort to diversify the WIC workforce to better reflect clients served by the program.

According to Mark Willis, director of the Hall Hunger Initiative in Dayton, ensuring a diverse WIC workforce at places like grocery stores is important when it comes to working with the community.

“If you don't have a workforce that's at least somewhat reflective of the people you're serving or trying to serve, you can't understand their needs very well," he said. "And I think that's where we see the disconnect.”

Missing families, lost benefits

According to a recent USDA Food and Services study, in an average month, around 51% of families eligible for WIC are using the program nationally. In Ohio, that number drops to 38.9%.

Research shows WIC participation has a wide range of benefits: leading to healthier infants, more nutritious diets and better health care for children, and subsequently to higher academic achievement for students.

As the WIC national strategy is implemented in years to come, Willis is hopeful that engagement numbers will rise locally to match or surpass the national average.

"It's good for the kids, it's good for their family, and ultimately it saves money for our health system. So I'm encouraged," Willis said. "I like the fact that they looked deeply into their issues, and it seems like they were willing to kind of challenge them selves."

Strategy for change

To address this issue, the USDA and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture are working with with the University of Minnesota Extension to design a five-year plan which will strengthen the WIC workforce.

The agencies have found that there is a lack of diversity within the WIC workforce to reflect the families they serve, and a need for more integration of diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility in WIC operations and workforce development activities.

Among the funding, more than $19 million is for projects that will increase the diversity and cultural competency of the WIC workforce and address barriers to recruitment and retention of WIC staff.

The organizations also suggest developing learning opportunities for WIC staff and analyzing how regulations, policies and guidance impact WIC services for diverse families.

The program is also looking to boost variety in products covered under WIC which includes offering more diverse, cultural staples.

Willis said local organizations can better serve their communities by improving training and diversity in the program.

“Change is hard. But otherwise, having a wider variety of food, having more retailers involved, having a more diverse workforce; those are all positives,” he said.

Shay Frank was born and raised in Dayton, Ohio. Before working at WYSO, Shay worked as the Arts Writer for the Blade Newspaper in Toledo, Ohio. In addition to working at the paper, she worked as a freelancer for WYSO for three years and served as the vice president of the Toledo News Guild. Now located back in the Dayton area, Shay is thrilled to be working with the team at WYSO and reporting for her hometown community.