An Online Wellness Magazine produced by The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth)

Good Nutrition Starts Early

Healthy food choices for young families are easy thanks to the UTHealth WIC program

UTHealth WIC Clinics

(Photo credit: Maricruz Kwon, UTHealth)

As the young family pushes the grocery cart down the food aisles, healthy food selections become easier when they use their Women, Infants and Children (WIC) shopping list and fill their cart with WIC-approved items.

Food packages, offered by The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) WIC program, feature smart choices such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk, yogurt and baby food, in addition to cereal, eggs, juice, peanut butter and beans. 

Nutrition services at UTHealth WIC, which is a part of McGovern Medical School at UTHealth, promote a better quality of life for Texas’ most vulnerable children by providing healthful foods, nutrition education for parents, support for moms who breast-feed and medical and social-service referrals.

Foods provided by WIC are identified based on their nutritional profile. “We do the research for parents so they can be confident the WIC foods are healthy and add variety to their family’s diet,” explains Karen Gibson, R.D., UTHealth WIC program director.

Parents choose from a variety of brands and types of foods; the average monthly grocery shopping for WIC foods is $60 per person and that amount does not include the value of a breast pump or infant formula.

The UTHealth WIC clinics serve six Houston locations: Greenspoint, North Channel, Spring Branch, Hobby, Power Center (South Main) and University (Hillcroft).

WIC benefits and services are free for:

  • Pregnant and breast-feeding women,
  • Women who’ve recently had a child,
  • Infants and children under age 5, and
  • Anyone with custody or guardianship of infants and children under age 5 can apply for benefits for their child.

Each mom, infant and child under age 5 receives their own food package.  “I am proud of our services and that taxpayer dollars are used efficiently,” Gibson says.  “USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) requires every state to have a rebate program with formula providers, and they give us a rebate for every can of formula we give out. We can add more people in the program without using more taxpayer dollars.”

Benefits are available in all 254 Texas counties through more than 70 contracting agencies. Approximately 31,000 participants are served per month in the UTHealth WIC clinics, with about one-third coming through the door.

Included in the first visit is counseling with the nutritionist or dietitian. At the end of the first visit, WIC participants receive an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card loaded with three months’ worth of food benefits for all eligible family members.

“The WIC program is a safety net for families,” Gibson says.

Program eligibility

“Good nutrition starts with pregnancy and positions children to make healthy choices for the rest of their life,” says Gibson, who has been program director since 1992.  Research shows bad food choices can lead to a risk for obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

WIC is a short-term program, with participants completing the program at the end of one or more certification periods.

“We look for ways to identify families who may qualify for WIC benefits and services, and make certain they are aware of the program,” notes Gibson.  “Our current issue is to reach out to community partners and health care providers to ensure they are aware of the benefits WIC can provide to their patients.”

People often think that an assistance program is only for low income families, however income eligibility for the WIC Program is much higher than most people realize. An applicant’s household income is reviewed based on a sliding scale, meaning the more individuals in the household, the more income the household can earn and still be eligible.  

For eligibility, a household of four can currently earn up to approximately $45,000 per year. This can typically be a young family with a working parent and two young children.  If the family is already qualified for Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), they will automatically be eligible for WIC.

Nutrition can be fun

The program requires participation in a nutrition class every three months. Approximately 15 attend group class in person and there also is an online option.

Cara Gabris, R.D., L.D., is the WIC nutrition and outreach coordinator. “The secret is to make healthy eating fun for families and teach them how to do it through food demonstrations and recipes,” she says.

A recent class focused on smart snacking and included examples of holiday food choices and specifically Halloween candy, with discussion about how many sugar cubes are in certain candies. “Participants are always surprised at how much sugar is consumed in popular foods,” Gabris says.

Fun ideas are shared for a veggie or fruit tray.  “The first thing we hear from a participant is “Oh, I can’t do this, it’s too hard,” and then in the next class they tell us, “I tried your tips and they work.”

Help for high risk families

Ester Morales, R.D., is the program’s wellness and high risk coordinator. “Our high risk component is for participants who may need a higher level of counseling and possibly a doctor referral,” she explains. “For example, a woman may have unexplained weight loss in her second or third trimester or an infant may be losing weight.”

“One of our teen moms was struggling to stay in high school,” she says, “and I explained the importance of staying in school and the programs that are available to help her.  When she invited me to her high school graduation, it was a wonderful feeling knowing we made a difference in her life.”

Morales describes participants as their extended family. “Hearing them say how much we help them is the reward that can’t be measured,” she says.

Breast-feeding help

Alisa Sanders, R.N., I.B.C.L.C., R.L.C., is clinic manager and lactation consultant at the Lactation Foundation, also a part of McGovern Medical School at UTHealth. “Funded in part by WIC, services are available at no cost to everyone, not just WIC participants,” she explains.  “We provide breast-feeding assistance in a nonjudgmental, nurturing environment.”

Their current issue, she says, “is that moms do not seek professional lactation help soon enough.  Many are misinformed that breast-feeding is supposed to be painful, and they continue nursing through the pain. Many women assume the pain only affects themselves and they are not aware that painful breast-feeding can negatively impact their milk supply and it may be a sign that baby is not transferring adequately.”

Breast-feeding is important to the baby and mom. “Women who breast-feed have lower rates of breast cancer, as well as lower rates for diabetes and heart disease,” Sanders says. “For every 397 women who breast-feed, one case of breast cancer can be avoided.”

The foundation provides breast pumps and information to overcome breast-feeding challenges and the moms’ support group meets weekly to help moms with their breast-feeding journey.

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