20 Years of WIC

May 06, 1994

Government bashing has become such a popular hobby that it comes as a surprise when people actually want to celebrate a government program, especially one designed to help poor people. The celebrations of the 20th anniversary of the Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC, illustrate that sometimes government does things right.

Baltimore has special cause for pride; the chief model for the program was pioneered here in the late 1960s by community activists and a young Hopkins pediatrician who recognized the crucial link between nutrition and health. Their initial concern was getting more children served by school lunch programs, but they soon realized that by the time a child was school-aged, hunger could have already taken an irreversible toll.

The group expanded its efforts to address maternal and prenatal health, including high rates of iron deficiency and anemia in some neighborhoods. They experimented with various ways of providing services, such as delivering infant formula to homes. Equally important was the fact that they focused on hunger and poor nutrition as a health problem with far-reaching effects, particularly for pregnant women and very young children.

WIC's target clientele includes pregnant women, new mothers, infants and children up to age 5. It aims to reduce low birthweights, infant mortality and health and development problems that result from poor nutrition. The results can be dramatic. The General Accounting Office reports that the $296 million spent on prenatal WIC benefits in 1990 will save $1.04 billion in health and education-related expenses for WIC infants during their first year of life. By improving nutrition during pregnancy, WIC reduces the rate of very low birthweights (under 3.3 pounds) by 44 percent. These are the babies who often need to spend several weeks or months in neonatal intensive care units.

Other studies have shown that children in the WIC program are more likely to be immunized and demonstrate stronger intellectual development than children in families with similar incomes who are not participating in the program.

Over two decades WIC has proven to be a winner. And no wonder. Like most successful programs, it builds on common sense: If a nutritious diet is essential to health, it is especially critical during the most vulnerable periods of development.

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