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Food assistance program for moms and kids — WIC — celebrates 50 years in Allegheny County

The entrance to the Women, Infant and Children's office in Downtown Pittsburgh.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

A national program that helps low-income parents buy groceries and provides them with nutritional education is 50 years old this month.

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children — also known as WIC — can pay for milk, eggs, produce, baby food and pantry staples. The program is for kids under age 5, as well as pregnant people and new moms up to one year after giving birth.

WIC has a long history in Allegheny County: The Allegheny County Health Department says that in May 1974, it opened the second WIC office in the entire country. The first was in Pineville, Kentucky, in January 1974.

Despite Allegheny County’s track record, only about 11,000 people are currently enrolled in WIC. County Executive Sara Innamorato estimates that this number only accounts for about half of Allegheny County residents who are WIC-eligible.

As WESA has previously reported, the number of Pennsylvanians enrolled in WIC significantly dropped over the past decade. While there’s been some improvement in the last couple of years, numbers have not returned to pre-COVID levels.

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Dannai Wilson, the county health department’s deputy director of community and family health, said it’s not clear why more people aren’t signing up for the program. During a WIC anniversary celebration on Wednesday at the Hosanna House in Wilkinsburg, she noted that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — formerly known as the Food Stamp Program — has had an uptick in participation. It’s possible, said Wilson, families may not see the benefit in participating in both programs.

“We’re not just providing you with a cash benefit for food, we’re actually providing you with those nutritional educational benefits,” she said. “So, it’s like having your own nutritionist.”

To improve enrollment, the county health department now allows virtual WIC appointments, which can be scheduled on Mondays and Fridays, and has a mobile unit that will do outreach in areas like Millvale or Tarentum — boroughs that aren’t located near one of the county’s 11 WIC offices.

The department has also teamed up with the Hillman Foundation to increase the number of stores that accept WIC payments. As soon as next week, businesses can apply for $5,000 grants that will cover the costs of becoming WIC authorized — which includes purchasing a point-of-sales system that accepts WIC cards.

The health department is specifically interested in working with stores located in the Hill District, North Side, Larimer, East Hills, Homewood, Wilkinsburg, Garfield, McKees Rocks, Stowe Township, Tarentum and the Mon Valley.

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.