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How the federally funded Women, Infants and Children Program (WIC) works

From Medicaid to food stamps to unemployment benefits, the Federal Government offers numerous services to individuals who may be struggling to make ends meet. The challenges faced by the average citizen can be even more difficult if they have young children. Supporting a family is hard enough as it is and in dire economic times the obstacles are greatly increased. Luckily, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children – more commonly known as WIC – is in place to help low-income women and their children get the nutritional assistance that they need.

The needs of pregnant women and infants are much different from what male adults or older children require. According to the Mayo Clinic, women who are expecting should focus on eating foods including whole grain cereal, scrambled eggs and dairy products.

As for infants, the USDA says that infants need nutrients that provide energy, specifically carbohydrates and protein. In particular, breast milk is one of the best sources of protein for infants, and the WIC is a strong advocate of breastfeeding. Additionally, vitamin D is essential as well for the healthy growth of bones.

During the 1960s it became evident that pregnant women and new mothers had specific nutritional needs. As a result, a number of doctors petitioned Congress for federal funding for a program that can help women who might not otherwise have the means get the right food. Eventually, they were successful and in 1972 lawmakers established WIC thanks to the Child Nutrition Act of 1966. Now WIC is available to people in around 1,890 local agencies is all 50 states, 34 Indian Tribal Organizations and several American territories.

In its decades of existence, WIC has proven to be a success. According to the United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service, WIC helped about 53 percent of all infants born in the U.S, which came out to about 9.17 million people during 2010. To understand the full scope of the program, one has to first be aware of just who is eligible for assistance in the first place.

The WIC benefits pregnant, postpartum and breastfeeding women as well as infants and children up to 5 years old. In addition to being in the correct age and stage of life, beneficiaries need to meet certain financial requirements as well. Specifically, to receive nutrition assistance, families have to be at no more than 185 percent above the poverty level, which would currently be a little bit more than about 41,000 for a family of four.

There is also another way to qualify for WIC. If a person or their family members are enrolled in several other programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Medicaid, or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, they will also qualify.

Included in the requirements is the term "nutrition risk," which carries with it a few of other qualifications as well. According to the USDA, there are two different groups of people who are deemed to be at such a risk. The first includes people who may be suffering from such as anemia (low blood iron), are under or overweight, have a history of pregnancy complications or poor pregnancy outcomes. The second group includes people who have not been able to meet certain dietary guidelines. Individuals in either group have to be placed there by a medical professional to make sure they meet certain Federally-mandated regulations.

Once a person is deemed to be eligible for WIC they are given several benefits. The first of these is nutrition education, which is available in a number of different varieties. One of the most significant ways that WIC educates its beneficiaries is through breastfeeding promotion. The program does this not only through providing recipients with information on the practice but also by offering breastfeeding mothers more benefits. For instance, breastfeeding mothers can receive assistance longer than those who bottle feed while also getting a wider variety of food.

In addition to touting the benefits of breastfeeding, the WIC also provides classes and counseling on how to provide infants and young children with proper nutrition. In particular, recipients can meet with registered dietitians and nutrition education counselors. In California, some of the classes offered include a session on the benefits of drinking low fat milk and another highlighting the importance of staying healthy during pregnancy.

Of course, the WIC provides more than just breastfeeding assistance and education. First and foremost, people who participate in the program are given money or vouchers so that they can purchase specific foods to give them and their children the nutrition that they need. Specifically, these foods often include items such as infant cereal, cheese, peanut butter, dried fruit and canned vegetables, according to the USDA.

Although the program is operated at a Federal level by the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service, it is up to the states to determine who is eligible for participation and to reach out to vendors and actually provide the benefits. As such, people who are looking to apply for the WIC assistance should turn to a more local level. Fortunately, doing so is relatively easy and only requires an individual to contact the local agency serving her area, a list of which is provided on the Food and Nutrition Service's website.

Programs like the WIC serve an important role in the community especially as a large number of children in the United States are at risk of going hungry. According to a CBS News story, a study conducted by Feeding America found that about 3.5 million children under 5 are at risk for hunger. Additionally, even before the economic downturn 11 percent of households did not have enough food to provide an active, healthy lifestyle.