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July 9, 2008
WIC food program 'swamped' with requests

  BY COLLEEN LAMAY - clamay@idahostatesman.com

Edition Date: 07/01/08


A record number of families in the Treasure Valley and across Idaho are signing up for a federal program that puts food on the table for mothers and young children.

"We've just been swamped here in the last several months," said Karen Martz, manager of the Women, Infants and Children program for the Central District Health Department, which covers Ada, Boise, Valley and Elmore counties.

WIC provides food staples such as milk, eggs and peanut butter to women who are pregnant or have young children and who meet income requirements - $3,184 a month or less for a family of four.

On Tuesday, even more people will be eligible. The income limit will rise to $3,269 monthly for a family of four. Financial eligibility is the same as for reduced price school lunches.

WIC's record pace in Idaho mirrors similar increases nationwide, said Emily Simnitt, spokeswoman for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.

Statewide, the number of people getting WIC food rose 8 percent in one year, from 38,500 a year ago to 42,000 now, Simnitt said.

Public health officials here blame the economy - workers laid off, people working fewer hours than they want to and rising gas prices.

The economy is pushing more people into WIC at the same time the cost of WIC groceries is going up. It takes an average of $55 a month to buy the same food that cost $49 a year ago, Simnitt said.

"Fortunately, there has been funding to cover the additional costs because of congressional support," she said.

The government has authorized $18.5 million for WIC in Idaho this year, $4 million more than last year, said Carolyn Conner, state WIC program manager.

A man named Dan, who asked that his last name not be used for fear of irking his employer, was at the Central District offices in Boise on Friday to apply for WIC with his pregnant wife.

He makes $8 an hour working part time. So does she. They want to work more hours, but so far, their employers have said no.

"We aren't making much because of the economy," said Dan, who moved the couple from Seattle about two years ago. "It's hard to get a job out here."

Ashley Kegley, 24, was in the same Boise waiting room with her two children, 1 and 5 years old. She will start work soon at a job helping people with Alzheimer's disease.

WIC "helps a lot," Kegley said. She is resourceful and usually finds a way to make ends meet, she said. But, she added, "There have been times when I don't have milk, and I don't have a way to get milk."

In May 2008, the Central District served 6,831 people, up from 6,545 a year earlier.

Southwest District Health, which serves adjacent Canyon County, is seeing even greater increases. Last month, 8,875 people received food through WIC, almost 1,000 more than the 7,891 people the same month a year ago.

"They need the (money for) gas to go to work, so they come to WIC to get milk for their children to drink," said Laurie Boston, spokeswoman for Southwest District Health, which covers Canyon and five other counties, most of them bordering Oregon.

Public health officials cannot take WIC funding for granted. Some aid programs, such as Medicaid, are required to help everyone who is eligible. WIC isn't. When money runs out, people go on a waiting list.

So far, officials aren't worried. "The president has been a strong supporter of WIC," Martz said.

Colleen LaMay: 377-6448