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WIC helps low-income families with healthy foods.

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A box of blueberries, a packet of carrots, some avocados, artichokes and a bag of spinach will usually cost around $10. This price will vary by season of course, but in general you can take home fruits and vegetables for a very reasonable amount. However, with that same amount of money you could buy a bucket of deep-fried something, soda and snacks at any fast food restaurant and all of it will probably look more appealing to a kid than a bunch vegetables.

Sesame Street advocates for healthier eating.
photo: nwitimes.com

But put a sticker of Elmo from Sesame Street on one of those vegetables and that same kid will probably choose that vegetable over something else, like candy. That’s what a 2005 study found by Sesame Workshop, a nonprofit educational organization supporting Sesame Street.

Seventy-eight percent of the children in the study chose a chocolate bar over a non-sticker broccoli. But when a sticker of Elmo was placed on the broccoli, 50 percent chose the broccoli over the chocolate bar. That study was the start of a program comprising of a national partnership with several organizations in response to the health and obesity crisis. One of those organizations, Women, Infants, and Children, or more commonly known as WIC, along with Sesame Street has played an important role helping many families develop healthier eating habits.

“Crunchy sweet, good to eat” and “Munch and Crunch together” posters featuring Bert and Ernie, Elmo, Big Bird and other popular Sesame Street characters adorn every WIC agency you walk into.

“Every young family needs help with nutrition education,” said Judy Gomez, director of planning and projects at Public Health Foundation Enterprises (PHFE).

PHFE provides WIC programs to Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino County. “We are a group of wonderful dietitians, said Judy. “Good nutrition and health is our goal.”

Sesame Street characters teach kids to eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains as part of the Healthy Habits campaign in partnership with WIC. The campaign features recipes and tips on shopping for healthy foods on a budget. There was a time when you saw Cookie Monster ravenously eating only cookies:

Now, cookies are a “sometimes” food, while fruits and vegetables are an “anytime” food.”

WIC started in 1974 to promote healthier nutritional habits among participants and prevent health problems such as anemia, infant mortality or childhood obesity. The federal program has since grown to serve over 9 million, with 1.5 million in California alone. Nationwide, that means WIC helps with more than half of all babies born in the country.

With such numbers, WIC programs are in a position to have a substantial impact in the health and eating habits in a large portion of the nation’s population.

Irene Lopez, 24, from Van Nuys, has been a WIC member since she was five months pregnant and receives breastfeeding education for her 8-month-old. “They made sure I [consumed] enough fruits, vegetables and milk,” said Irene , “especially since I wasn’t eating those kinds of foods. They’ve made it a lot easier.”

Roxana Martinez,  27, also has two kids under WIC services in Canoga Park; a three and a four-year-old. She says WIC has helped her become a smarter shopper when buying vegetables and fruits through classes and handouts. “They’ve given me pamphlets and books about eating nutritiously and choosing better foods, ” said Roxana.

Irene, Roxana and their kids are part of the families WIC targets as at nutrition risk, or at crucial stages of nutritional development and of low-income. But 14.5 percent of all U.S. households are food insecure, meaning they lack the proper resources or money for nutritiously adequate food. In 2008, 49 million were food insecure, including 17 million children. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which funds WIC, reports food insecurity rates were substantially higher for Black and Hispanic families and more common in large cities and rural areas.

The lack of resources leads to undernourishment. Diabetes, obesity, anemia and other chronic health problems are all indications of poverty and food insecurity, according the Center on Hunger and Poverty and Food Research and Action Center (FRAC).

Low-income families are far more impacted by the national obesity crisis because either they cannot afford healthy food or they simply don’t have access to healthy options in grocery stores. Proximity to stores with healthy groceries instead of fast-food and highly-processed choices, demographics and transportation options are all part of the complexity that determines the health of families . The USDA provides a very detailed and handy map of such areas and relationships.

According to FRAC, this seemingly contradictory relationship in low-income families between obesity, hunger and food insecurity negatively impacts children’s behavior and performance in school.

This is where WIC comes in.

“There are certain requirements to becoming WIC vendors,” said Judy. “WIC made it [possible], for local stores to carry whole grains, fruits and vegetables. So WIC caused a small revolution in healthy foods getting into these small stores, and we are just thrilled with the outcome.”

In 2009, WIC made changes to the supplemental food packages it provides. Whole grains, fruits, vegetables and soy foods were added and changes to the amounts of milk and cheese were made to meet with new studies under the Dietary Guidelines for Americans with a goal to lower the risk of obesity.

Local stores that sold WIC were required to carry the new changes in the food packages that might not have been available in low-income communities across the country.

Since then, just in California, WIC vendors bring in $62 in sales to communities each month for every WIC participant and $93 million statewide, according to PHFE.

Reports by USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, which works to decrease national hunger and obesity, show federal efforts are working well by implementing nutritional assistance programs such as WIC that help make positive changes in the diets and food choices of each participant.

“I prefer [spending] a little more on organic, healthy food because it’s more nutritious,” said Roxana. “It would have been bad without WIC. I would have to buy everything cheaper and not as nutritious. Economically it helps a lot.”

Irene agrees that WIC has made a big change, “I started taking in more food I should be eating to make sure the baby was getting enough nutrition. It’s a big help for the whole family.”

WIC mothers and children receive education in workshops, classes and literature in different languages to better reflect the diverse demographics. In California, Hispanics round out the majority of participants at 84 percent, with the remainder being African American at 6 percent, Asian 6 percent, Caucasian 3 percent, and Native American 1 percent, according to PHFE.

“We all put together a group education for WIC participants,” said Judy. “The information and education is going to be the same in Modesto, the same in Pasadena and the same in Fresno. The messages can be found in Chinese, Vietnamese, Spanish… everywhere throughout the nation it is the same message.”

Since many WIC staff members were WIC participants themselves, they are culturally sensitive and competent to serve the specific needs of communities. And now that same message of healthy eating is taught by furry monsters from New York.

“[Sesame Street] has basically a social responsibility and they are very bright to market healthy foods to kid,” said Judy. “WIC is a great opportunity to get these messages across because WIC is a perfect platform for these messages to get out to low-income families”.

In fact, walk into a WIC agency and alongside active little kids running by your legs and mothers trying to sit them down, you will likely find more than someone there to help you with information regarding your children’s nutrition and health. Best part is it’s all for free.

Here you can find WIC recipes, tips and handouts for building better eating habits in both Spanish and English, and the full Sesame Street kit for the Healthy Habits campaign.

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