Celebrating WIC

May 05, 1994

Hunger hurts at any age, but as scientists learn more about the role of nutrition in human development, hunger's toll becomes clearer. Stunted development, both mental and physical, is only part of the cost. Chronic health problems can begin at birth; later on, schools see the results in children unable to learn or even concentrate. That is doubly tragic when the causes for failure in school are preventable by something as simple as decent food, especially in the crucial early years of life.

For 20 years, a government program has been combining common sense with the best kind of government intervention. The Special Supplementary Food Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) provides nutritious food packages, nutrition education and medical screening to low-income pregnant women, new mothers, infants and children up to age 5. The aim is prevention -- a goal that dovetails nicely with the Clinton administration's health care priorities.

Baltimore can take particular pride in the WIC celebrations. The program is largely based on models developed here in the late 1960s by community activists aided by a young Hopkins pediatrician, Dr. David Paige. Dr. Paige is one of several people being honored this week for his role in WIC's success.

Two decades ago, Dr. Paige and his supporters recognized that providing lunches to malnourished school children was too little, too late. They expanded their focus back to where nutrition-related problems begin, with pregnant women and infants. Their early experiments with devising services to improve nutrition for mothers and babies helped convince officials in Washington that such efforts could pay off on a national level.

They have -- many times over. The General Accounting Office estimates that the $296 million spent on prenatal WIC benefits in 1990 will save $1.04 billion in health and education-related expenses in the next 18 years. It will save $853 million in health-related expenses for WIC infants during their first year of life alone, primarily by reducing the number of babies born with low birthweights or very low birthweights. Compared to children in families with similar incomes, WIC kids are more likely to get regular medical care and to be immunized. They also demonstrate better intellectual development.

WIC has proven its worth, not just in dollars saved but in the eager faces and bright futures it makes possible by making sure mothers and babies have good things to eat.

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