In March 2020, as offices closed and people stayed home to stay safe, Washington Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Program knew it needed to make changes rapidly so that moms and their young children could continue to have access to healthy foods and guidance on nutrition and breastfeeding.
“Going to all remote services was uncharted territory for us,” said Office of Nutrition Services Director Paul Throne. “While we have an amazing team, and incredible partners, there was a lot we needed to get into place to ensure a seamless transition to remote services.”
Early in the pandemic, it was critical the Washington WIC team move swiftly to provide an alternative to in-person WIC appointments. WIC is an essential program in Washington. In 2019, WIC served 235,000 women, infants, and children across the state. In addition to food, nutrition support and education, WIC also provides health assessment, referrals and breastfeeding support.
“Almost half of all infants in Washington are on the WIC program,” said Cathy Franklin, WIC Improvement Project coordinator. “It was critical we get remote services right.”
After the initial ramp up, the team was ready to support remote services – serving families from over 200 clinic locations.
Washington WIC provided phone or video chat appointments throughout the state. They also expanded food options for participants during the pandemic.
The WIC team saw the impact remote services and expanded options had on enrollment and follow-up appointments.
“This fall we’ve seen a jump in enrollment and a drop in missed appointments, well beyond what we anticipated,” said Franklin. “That means remote services aren’t just filling a pandemic-related gap and reducing COVID-19 exposure risk, it’s actually fulfilling our clients’ need for more accessible services and appointments.”
New applications are up since supplemental federal unemployment benefits ended in August 2020. As of December 2020, participation is up nearly 16% over the expected level before COVID-19, and missed appointments have fallen to nearly zero. In the past, 10-15% of WIC participants missed necessary appointments, which were almost all face-to-face. This jeopardized their access to nutritious foods and other WIC services.
WIC participants are often busy parents, juggling work, kids, school, and other obligations. Before WIC went remote, participants had to visit WIC offices in-person for services. Some participants struggled to arrange for time off, transportation, or childcare to be able to get to WIC offices.
“We’re plan on continuing many remote services even after the pandemic,” said Franklin. “This is working, and participants love it.”
Removing these barriers and smoothing on-ramps to programs align with recommendations in the 10-year Plan to Dismantle Poverty. The Plan was created by Governor Inslee’s Poverty Reduction Work Group and approved by a Steering Committee of people experiencing poverty. The Plan affirms the importance of the WIC program and families having access to nutritious and fresh food (strategy 4). It also recommends making enrolling in state-managed programs easier so more people can take advantage of them (strategy 6). All of these efforts add up to more Washingtonians having their foundational needs met so they can reach their full potential and contribute to their families, communities, and our state.