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WIC program, hospital partner to link newborns to nutrition

January 28, 2018

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — Janel Moore has had her heart broken more than once when mothers leaving the maternity unit at Sentara Norfolk General asked:

“Do you have any extra formula or a breast pump?”

The question would transport Moore, a nurse and clinical manager on the unit, back to when she was a 17-year-old single mom overwhelmed with tasks of caring for a baby on her own, and embarrassed about signing up for a federal program that would provide food for her and her baby.

But she did, and now, decades later, she’s helped launch a new partnership between Norfolk General and outreach workers with the Women, Infants and Children program.

Instead of waiting for mothers to come to them, WIC outreach workers are going bed-to-bed in the maternity unit to educate mothers about nutrition and breastfeeding, and also sign them up for a WIC card they can use to buy healthy foods like milk, cheese and vegetables.

The WIC program is an old one, but the idea to start signing up families while they’re still on the maternity unit is new here, and the result of brainstorming between maternity unit staff and Norfolk’s WIC workers.

It comes at a time when there’s concern about a national decline in the number of families signing up for WIC, which offers healthy foods and nutrition education to low-income women before and after pregnancy, and to their children up to age 5.

According to a 2017 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture the rates of WIC participation fell from 64 percent in 2011 to 55 percent in 2014. Virginia’s rate was lower than the national average that year at 48 percent.

It’s concerning to health advocates because the program has been linked to better nutrition, less obesity, higher immunization rates and even improved academic performance.

Ernest Flemings, WIC coordinator for Norfolk, said several barriers keep moms from signing up. One is transportation to a WIC office, especially with a new baby. Once they get there they often don’t have the proper paperwork.

Three items in particular can delay certifying a family for benefits: a photo ID, proof of income, and lab results for iron levels for mother and child.

The partnership with the hospital provides all three: The hospital has a photo ID of the patients, and there are lab results for both the mother and the child that show iron levels. Also, mothers on Medicaid have proof of their income through the state-federal insurance program for families in poverty.

Norfolk General has one of the higher rates of Medicaid-eligible maternity populations in the region, at 57 percent, so it’s a natural place to conduct mobile signups. The hospital also treats a high number of mothers with high-risk pregnancies.

Misa Ewing, director of the family maternity center at the hospital, said hospital and health department officials began meeting last spring on the project. WIC outreach workers set up a computer system on a rolling cart that could be used to log information, provide nutritional education and even get electronic signatures from mothers. They began signing mothers up in September.

“We go to their rooms, so they don’t even have to get out of their beds,” Flemings said.

The numbers of family members signed up went from 27 the first month to 71 in November. The once-a-week session will expand to two in a few months.

Dr. Mandeep Virk-Baker, director of the Virginia Department of Health’s division of community nutrition, said the partnership is a good example of what health officials are trying to do across the state to increase WIC participation.

Another project getting ready to launch later this year will dispatch “WIC on Wheels” vans staffed with outreach workers and nutritionists to grocery stores throughout Hampton Roads.

The outreach workers will be able to sign up people who qualify for WIC and also provide education in the grocery store about good nutrition, and which parts of the store to focus on for healthier choices. That will be particularly important in retaining children ages 1 and older in WIC, which is where declines have been noted.

At Norfolk General, Betty Jo Dela Cruz signed up for benefits just two days after her baby, Leiah, was born on Jan. 9. Nutritionist Doreen Currie came to her bedside with a computer on wheels to ask questions about her nutrition, whether she planned on breastfeeding, and also explaining how her WIC card will work.

Betty Jo and her husband, Kevin, listened intently as they filled out the forms. In most cases, parents are able to use the cards to buy food on the way home from the hospital.

Betty Jo said she had tried to sign up for WIC before she had the baby, but a doctor’s appointment interfered with that plan.

“I was excited to find out I could do it here,” she said.

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Information from: The Virginian-Pilot, http://pilotonline.com

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