Colorado struggled to enroll eligible families in a food program targeting pregnant people and young children, despite performing well on many other measures of supporting families, a new report says.
About 82% of eligible babies in Colorado were enrolled in the Women, Infants and Children program, according to the most recent data, which was collected before the pandemic. That was the eighth-lowest rate in the country.
WIC covers baby food and infant formula, as well as fruits, vegetables and certain types of cereal, juice, dairy products and proteins. Lactating families can also receive pumps and education about breastfeeding. The monthly benefit is about $38 during pregnancy, $147 during infancy and $34 as children get older.
The program can also connect new parents to other resources. Mothers who participate in WIC have lower odds of premature delivery, having a low-birthweight baby, or losing a child in the first year of life than similar women who aren’t enrolled, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
Vanessa Bernal, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said the state is working with medical providers and early childhood educators to increase enrollment. In some counties, WIC has employees embedded in hospital maternity departments or obstetricians’ and pediatricians’ offices, she said.
“While on a small scale for now, these will help us to better understand whether this type of approach can increase the number of babies who are enrolled in the program,” she said in a statement. “There are many factors that contribute to a family’s decision to participate in the program, including their previous experience with WIC or other programs, level of knowledge about it, perception of need, competing demands, and others.”
Nationwide, about 97.8% of eligible babies are enrolled in WIC, according to the most recent State of Babies report, which compares how well states support children under 5. The disparities are the opposite of what’s typically seen — white babies are less likely to enrolled in WIC than children of color.
New Hampshire has the lowest participation, enrolling only about 65% of eligible babies, while 23 states reportedly reached 100%. (These are based on a sample of eligible families, and it’s unlikely any state reached every single infant.) The highest performers included both red and blue states in all regions of the country.
Colorado scores above average on most measures of health for babies, pregnant people and new mothers, such as the uninsured rate and the odds a person received recommended care. Why some states that typically do well on child health rankings, like Colorado and much of New England, had trouble enrolling families in WIC is unclear, said Kim Keating, author of the State of Babies report.
“There’s no pattern in it,” she said.
To qualify for WIC, families must have a pregnant member or a child younger than 5 who is at “nutritional risk” and meet income requirements. The maximum income for a three-person family is just over $40,000. Nutritional risk is a broad category that includes anemia in the mother; being overweight or underweight; having social risk factors for poor nutrition, such as homelessness; and a host of medical conditions.
Christina Walker, director of policy and advocacy at Clayton Early Learning Center, said the state could do more to flag eligible families, since households receiving food assistance or Medicaid typically qualify if they have young children. Clayton employees work one-on-one with families in the Head Start program to make sure they enroll in all programs they qualify for and understand the documentation they need, she said.
“Most families don’t have that,” she said.
Colorado was one of four states that took part in an experiment to see if reaching out to families eligible for other food assistance increased enrollment in WIC. It didn’t seem to make a difference in Colorado, though states that used texting as their outreach method had more success.
WIC can be more difficult to sign up for than other programs because families may have to get checked for nutritional risk factors in person, and overwhelmed parents of newborns can struggle with collecting documents and keeping appointments, Walker said.
“We just don’t make it easy for people to sign up,” she said.
Joël McClurg, policy and communications manager for Colorado Blueprint to End Hunger, said a key issue is that people fall through the cracks. Some feel the relatively modest benefits aren’t worth the difficulty of proving eligibility every year, especially as their kids get older, he said.
Many people find out about WIC via others who’ve participated, McClurg said. That means people who live in communities where many others are eligible are more likely to sign up than those who are one of a few eligible people in an affluent area. He wasn’t sure if Colorado’s relatively high average income might explain why sign-ups were lower statewide, though.
“You see much better enrollment when there’s good word-of-mouth,” he said.