Colorado struggles to enroll families in WIC food program

Colorado struggled to enroll eligible families in a feeding program targeting pregnant people and young children, despite performing well on many other measures to support families, a new report said.

About 82% of eligible infants in Colorado participated in the Women, Infants and Children program, according to the most recent data collected before the pandemic. That was the eighth lowest percentage in the country.

WIC covers baby food and infant formula, as well as fruits, vegetables and certain types of grains, juice, dairy products and proteins. Breastfeeding families can also receive pumping and breastfeeding education. The monthly benefit is about $38 during pregnancy, $147 during childhood and $34 as children get older.

The program can also connect new parents with other resources. Mothers who participate in WIC have a lower risk of preterm birth, having a baby with a low birth weight or losing a child in the first year of life than comparable women who are not enrolled, according to the US Department of Agriculture

Vanessa Bernal, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said the state is working with medical providers and early childhood educators to increase enrollment. In some provinces, WIC has employees embedded in hospital maternity wards or offices of midwives and pediatricians, she said.

“While they are on a small scale for now, these will help us better understand whether this type of approach could increase the number of babies enrolled in the program,” she said in a statement. “There are many factors that contribute to a family’s decision to participate in the program, including their previous experience with WIC or other programs, level of knowledge about it, perception of need, competitive demands, and others.”

Nationwide, about 97.8% of eligible babies are enrolled in WIC, according to the most recent Condition of babies reportwhich compares how well states support children under the age of 5. The differences are the opposite of what is typically seen – white babies are less likely to enroll in WIC than children of color.

New Hampshire has the lowest participation, with only about 65% of eligible babies, while 23 states reportedly reached 100%. (These are based on a sample of eligible families, and a state is unlikely to have reached every single child.) The top performers were both the red and blue states across all regions of the country.

Colorado scores above average on most health measurements for babies, pregnant people and new mothers, such as the uninsured rate and the likelihood that a person received recommended care. Why some states that typically rank well in the child health rankings, such as Colorado and much of New England, struggled to enroll families in WIC is unclear, said Kim Keating, author of the State of Babies report.

“There’s no pattern to it,” she said.

To be eligible for WIC, families must have a pregnant member or child under 5 years of age with a “nutritional risk” and meet income requirements† The maximum income for a family of three is just over $40,000. Nutritional risk is a broad category that includes maternal anemia; being overweight or underweight; having social risk factors for poor nutrition, such as homelessness; and numerous medical conditions.

Christina Walker, director of policy and advocacy at Clayton Early Learning Center, said the state could do more to flag eligible families, as households receiving food aid or Medicaid are typically eligible if they have young children. Clayton employees work one-on-one with families in the Head Start program to make sure they enroll in all the programs they qualify for and understand the documentation they need, she said.

“Most families don’t,” she said.

Colorado was one of four states to participate in an experiment to see if reaching families who are eligible for other food aid increased enrollment in WIC. It didn’t seem to make a difference in Colorado, although states that use texting as their outreach method have had more success.

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