Participation lags in Arkansas' WIC program

Arkansas’ 35% enrollment rate is second lowest in country

Only 35% of Arkansans eligible for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC, were enrolled in the program in 2021, the second-lowest coverage rate in the nation behind New Mexico, according to federal report.

The report, released last month by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, noted that Arkansas was among seven states with coverage rates below 40% and among 17 states with rates lower than the national rates across all eligibility categories and age groups.

The overall national coverage rate was 51.2%.

The USDA also listed Arkansas as one of three states, along with Louisiana and Missouri, where the coverage rate declined by 12 percentage points or more from 2016 to 2021.

Arkansas' rate in 2016 was 48.5%, according to the report.

Established in 1972, WIC provides food, nutrition education and other services for children up to age 5 and women who are pregnant or who have recently given birth.

The program is administered in Arkansas by the state Department of Health.

Participants must have an household income of no more than 185% of the federal poverty level. That income cutoff as of July 1, for example, was $36,482 for a two-person household or $55,500 for a family of four.

Both in Arkansas and nationally, children ages 1-4 account for almost two-thirds of the eligible population, and the coverage rate for that group is lower than the rates for women and infants.

In Arkansas, just 22.6% of the nearly 145,000 children age 1-4 who were eligible for benefits participated in the program in 2021, the lowest rate in the country, according to the USDA report.

The coverage rate in Arkansas was 73.6% for infants and 46.7% for women.

Meanwhile, another USDA report, also released last month, found that 16.6% of Arkansas households surveyed from 2020-2022 had experienced food insecurity within the past year, the highest percentage in the country.

Households were classified as food insecure based on respondents' answers to questions such as whether they had eaten less than they felt they should because they didn't have enough money for food.

Maricella Garcia, equity director for advocacy at Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, said one reason the WIC coverage rate is higher for infants than for women or older children is because the program is available to mothers for at least six months after they give birth and up to a year if they are breastfeeding because "the program is meant to encourage breastfeeding."

"But they do provide formula," she said. "They also provide the specialty formulas for infants who have illnesses that require prescription formulas."

The coverage rate for children drops after age 1 because the mother is then no longer eligible for benefits. Also many women who took off work before giving birth stop participating in the program once they return to work, she said.

"The drop off after 1 has been consistent since the '90s, and it's really, because at that point, the mom is not participating," Garcia said.

In 2021, covid likely also discouraged some women from going to a health unit to sign up for WIC or to reload their cards, she said.

She also attributed the low participation to a lack of awareness of the benefits and of the program's purpose.

"People really don't understand that whole aspect of the program," Garcia said. "It's really a health program that provides food for nutrition."

Health Department spokeswoman Danyelle McNeill also cited a lack of awareness of the program as a reason for Arkansas' low coverage rate.

"Potentially eligible participants do not always know they qualify or may think they do not need it as much as someone else," McNeill said.

The federal report on WIC coverage notes that the covid-19 pandemic likely affected the number of women and children eligible for WIC and the number participating in 2021.

A news release accompanying the report noted that preliminary data showed participation rising in most states in 2022 and this year, although estimates for those years are not yet available.

Arkansas has also seen an increase in participation, "with some fluctuation month to month," over the past two years, McNeill said.

Ly is a Report for America Corps member.

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