“If we can conquer space, we can conquer childhood hunger.” ~ Buzz Aldrin
I make a mean chili. Though it has only seven basic ingredients, people have confided to me in a whisper, “It’s the best damn chili I’ve ever had.” The chili is made from my own mother’s recipe, which was carefully handwritten on a little index card and tucked inside her recipe box inside the tiny kitchen where I grew up. I affectionately dubbed my mother’s beloved recipe “Government Chili” a few years back, and the name stuck.
Government Chili got its name because the seven ingredients, by necessity, were all WIC foods. When I was a little girl, my mother had no choice but to rely on the foods provided by the government to feed me and my sister. We were very poor. WIC is the nickname for the federal “Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children,” which provides free food to low-income families with young children across the country. The list of WIC foods was significantly shorter when I was growing up, but my mother made the most of it. It’s been said that desperation breeds creativity, and never was that truer than in my mother’s kitchen: She concocted WIC versions of casseroles, stews, spaghettis, and her famous chili.
As a kid, I never knew that the recipes were invented out of need or that the recurring theme of pinto beans was due to the disproportionate number of dried beans included on the WIC list in 1981. I remember slicing that giant block of orange government cheese in our cozy kitchen, filled with the comforting smell of warm chili bubbling on the stove. I didn’t know we were poor. My tummy, like my life, was full.
But I do remember the food stamps. There was only one grocery store in our small farming town, and I stood in the checkout line while my mother counted out little red stamps and piled them in a heap on the counter, averting her eyes from our neighbors waiting in line behind us. I sensed her shame, but at my young age didn’t understand what was shameful about buying food.
I still don’t. On the contrary, I’m extremely proud of what my mother accomplished with her limited resources. And I’m proud of what the WIC program has accomplished in our country since it was launched in 1972. Last month, 4.7 million children were fed by WIC nationwide. Over 11,000 children received WIC nutrition in Santa Barbara County, where the program is part of the Public Health Department.
That’s 11,000 children in our community who didn’t go to bed hungry, didn’t have to wonder when their next meal would be, or suffer from the subtle manifestations of malnutrition. Since 27% of California children are food insecure (having insufficient quantities of food on a consistent basis), WIC plays a critical role in filling that gap.
But WIC is about more than just putting food on the table. Over the past 40 years, the program has evolved to include nutritional education for parents, higher nutrient standards for WIC foods, the Farmers’ Market Program, breastfeeding promotion, and increased emphasis on fruits and vegetables. In New York, the WIC program has actually lowered the rate of childhood obesity by simply making the WIC-approved foods healthier.
The ripple effects of providing children with nutritious foods are far-reaching. WIC programs ensure normal growth curves, reduce levels of anemia, increase immunization rates, and improve access to health care and social services. Children enrolled in WIC have higher intake of iron, potassium, and fiber. One study showed that four- to five-year-olds whose mothers participated in WIC during pregnancy had better vocabulary test scores than children whose mothers had not received WIC benefits. Prodigious!
Eligibility for WIC includes having an annual income below 185% of the Federal Poverty Level (that would be $43,568 for a family of 4), children five years of age or younger in the household, or pregnancy. An assessment is done to ascertain if there are nutritionally-related medical conditions, dietary deficiencies, and other at-risk factors such as substance abuse. These assessments are important, because the goal of this public health program is not just to provide food, but to educate parents on overall nutrition and address issues larger than just filling tummies.
A critic of state-sponsored food programs such as WIC recently lectured me on the troubled youth that these programs create: kids sentenced to be freeloaders and moochers the rest of their lives. I had to chuckle. While I cannot speak to his claims, I can attest to the fact that the WIC program in my home town produced one hella dedicated public physician, committed to advancing the public health program that put food on my family’s table when I would have gone hungry. That I do know.
WIC gave me more than just a fabulous recipe for chili. It gave me a personal sense of responsibility towards the children in my own community at risk of food insecurity. I do believe that if our dreams for our children are to end in college degrees, law degrees, and doctorates, then they must begin with vitamins, vegetables, and adequate nutrition. WIC plays a critical role in making that possible.
My mother would agree.
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Charity Thoman, M.D., M.H.A., is a deputy health officer in Santa Barbara County's Public Health Department.