Food program for women and children back on track despite tight budget

Posted: Sunday, June 23, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A national nutrition program for pregnant women and their young children was on the brink of turning scores of Alaskans away as state administrators faced a budget shortfall caused by rising food costs.

Then officials with the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services announced Friday afternoon they will continue the federally funded Women, Infants and Children program without cuts in service.

''Kids and pregnant women and the well-being of children have always been our priorities and we need to stick it out,'' Commissioner Jay Livey said. ''We'll find a way to keep going.''

Livey said WIC staffers are exploring other funding options, including a supplemental funding bill making its way through Congress.

The WIC program is administered statewide through 31 local groups and governments that tap into a $19 million annual allotment from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. WIC serves about 25,000 eligible pregnant and breast-feeding women in Alaska and children younger than 5 who are at risk of not getting proper nutrition.

The program could be $800,000 short by the end of the federal fiscal year Sept. 30 despite cost-cutting measures such as reducing juice supplies in food packages and not filling five vacant positions, said Karen Pearson, director of the Division of Public Health.

A rising food bill is to blame, she said. Infant formula has increased by 24 percent, juice by 19 percent and infant cereal by 13 percent.

It's a dilemma other states are facing as well, according to Pearson.

''When you have food items that you buy a lot of, that really adds up,'' she said.

On Wednesday, WIC staff notified local coordinators that existing clients would not be re-certified for food coupons until the new fiscal year Oct. 1. Those clients and new applicants would be put on waiting lists.

Then came the realization that the state had alternatives.

A federal bill that would add $75 million in WIC funds has been approved by the House and Senate, and is awaiting a joint conference review, Pearson said. Also, Alaska might get a share of about $8 million available nationwide from states not using all their WIC funds. As a last resort, a WIC provision allows a state to use a small portion of funds from the next fiscal year, Pearson said.

''We expect the options to help us a great deal,'' she said.

By the time community WIC offices heard the state had retracted its earlier directive, however, some women and children already had been cut off.

In Anchorage, Mayor George Wuerch launched a food drive through the Food Bank of Alaska. Wal-Mart donated a pallet of infant formula, said Heather Wheeler, supervisor of the WIC program run by the city.

Wheeler said 20 clients came in Friday to be re-certified, only to learn they would have to wait.

''We'll be contacting them and letting them know they are no longer on a waiting list,'' Wheeler said. ''It's wonderful that I and my staff do not have to say no to any more people. We're also very happy with the community response in donations.''

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