ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A U.S. Department of Agriculture nutrition program called Women, Infants and Children spends roughly $20 million a year in Alaska to make sure pregnant and nursing mothers and their young children have enough of the right kinds of food to eat.
But because of administrative restrictions, some of the money gets returned unused each year and some of the food goes, literally, to the dogs.
The goal of the 25-year-old program is to make sure that low-income mothers give birth to healthy babies and that those babies grow up to be healthy children. Research has shown that for every dollar spent on the WIC program, the government saves $3 in Medicaid expenses.
While WIC serves between 15,000 and 20,000 Alaskans, it's reaching only about 70 percent of the women and children who could qualify, said state director Nancy Rody.
And because there isn't enough administrative funding to staff the clinics where recipients are monitored and new clients are enrolled, Rody said that more than $1 million a year in food money has to be returned to Washington.
On top of that, Rody said, bureaucratic red tape has meant that roughly 1,000 women and children in rural villages who are sent monthly food packages through the mail get powdered eggs, a key source of protein, that they won't eat.
''A lot of it is fed to sled dogs,'' Rody said.
These problems are about to be fixed with program changes that U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, won during negotiations on a crop insurance bill approved by Congress on Thursday.
''The problem is that WIC has been a very costly program to administer in Alaska as compared to other states,'' Stevens said. ''We're just trying to get WIC, through a series of mandates, so it will fit Alaska.''
The legislation now goes to the White House, where President Clinton is expected to sign it into law.
The biggest change will permit the Alaska program to shift money between accounts -- something administrators have been seeking for years.
Each year, the Alaska WIC program receives about $12 million in federal funds and about $3 million a year in rebates from the makers of infant formula to provide food to clients. It is allocated another $6 million a year for administrative services, including the traveling clinics.
Washington officials have insisted that money cannot be transferred between those accounts, Rody said. But because Alaska faces higher costs to fly clinicians to the remote rural villages, administrative funds are exhausted before all of the food money is spent.
The result is that food money has to be returned, and needy Alaskans were going without WIC assistance.
Under Stevens' provision, WIC programs in Alaska and Hawaii will be allowed to shift money between accounts. That, together with the elimination of some of the paperwork requirements for rural recipients, should mean more mothers and children will be served.
In addition, the Clinton administration agreed to permit canned salmon to be substituted for powdered eggs.
Rody said that while the powdered eggs are a good source of protein, they're worthless if recipients won't eat them.
''People just don't like them, and they don't want to use them,'' she said. ''They are pretty awful.''
Canned pink salmon is more culturally acceptable and is nutritionally superior food, Rody said.
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