NPI, partners strengthen key pillar of nutrition for women, children
Long-standing WIC program serves more than 6 million people across U.S.
The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) safeguards the health of low-income pregnant and postpartum women, infants and young children who are at nutritional risk. Half of all U.S. infants are eligible to be WIC recipients, and the program – which was established in 1974 – served 6.3 million participants nationally in August 2022.
To continually improve the WIC program by studying its effectiveness, researchers from the Nutrition Policy Institute at UC Agriculture and Natural Resources and from UC Davis partner with professionals from the California WIC Association, the National WIC Association and Public Health Foundation Enterprises WIC.
Collaborating on multiple projects in California and across the U.S., their findings have informed policy as well as program implementation.
“What's wonderful about our collaboration is it pairs the front-line WIC experience with outstanding researchers who help us carefully follow the science,” said Shannon Whaley, director of research and evaluation at Public Health Foundation Enterprises WIC.
For example, the partners conducted a multi-state survey of over 26,000 WIC participants in 2021 to examine participant perceptions of new and adapted services such as uploading benefits remotely to WIC cards and a WIC smartphone app. A subsequent multi-state survey, the largest study of its kind, explored perceptions of the Cash Value Benefit increase during the pandemic and its impact on children’s intake of fruit and vegetables. Direct feedback from a large number of program participants is significant.
These studies provided valuable data to inform longer term policy and program decisions, such as the current proposal to make permanent the increases in the Cash Value Benefit allowed through the American Recovery Plan Act.
Lorrene Ritchie, director of the Nutrition Policy Institute, emphasized that the relationship with WIC-serving organizations is critical to the success of the research. “We come to them with research questions, but they're not always the best ones,” she said. “They tell us what we need to know to be able to inform policy and to be able to help quickly.”
Ritchie also said she appreciates their ability to disseminate the information to stakeholders. “Getting information into the right hands is key; without the partnership we would just be working in our ivory tower,” she explained.
Collaboration crucial to refining WIC
During the pandemic, the partners were able to work quickly and adeptly because of their long history together. “We knew we could do the work because we have a strong partnership and we trust each other,” said Ritchie. “That kind of collegial partnership is hard to come by, and it only comes from having worked together during the non-pandemic times.”
Christina Chauvenet, senior manager of research and program innovation at the National WIC Association, said that measuring changes to the WIC participant experience over the course of the pandemic was “a huge, impactful project.”
“We hit the ground running, working with state agencies to add what they wanted to add, and got the survey out as quickly as possible,” Chauvenet said. “Our original goal was to get 5,000 respondents, and we got 26,000. I am grateful for the collaboration we have at the intersection of research and practice.”
Another illustration of the value of these partnerships was a collaboration on the WIC food packages in 2017. Lauren Au, assistant professor of nutrition at UC Davis, said external partners helped the team define the most policy-relevant research questions – as well as the best timing for the research.
“Shannon (Whaley) said we needed to know how much people were consuming of the different food items, and they have this great data set,” Au said. “Knowing that insider information is really useful, because then we can work to do the best policy-relevant analysis.” New WIC food package rules were recently proposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service.
Karen Farley, executive director of the California WIC Association, cited the Infant and Toddler Feeding Practices Study as another successful collaboration. “The researchers were able to pull together a large body of information supported by academic-based research to enable the development of policy recommendations,” Farley said.
She noted that the USDA does research, but having academic research is helpful to broaden the body of knowledge. “And it's not industry-based, where some could question the results,” she added. “It’s reliable data.”
Importance of building partnerships
The team stressed the importance of building partnerships and providing mentoring to early career professionals. Whaley said she knew when she met Ritchie many years ago that a partnership with NPI would be effective: “There was eagerness to help each other and solve the issues.”
Au values the mentorship she has received from Ritchie and the other partners. “Lorrene brought me into the fold and sparked interest in working with young kids, in particular with infants,” she explained. “There's something to be said for building a strong mentorship where you're not only learning new skill sets from someone more senior, but you're also being exposed to their network.”
That early experience led to Au being involved in an online nutrition education study with Whaley, which in turn has led to other projects. “It spawned us applying for the WIC Cash Value Benefit study through Healthy Eating Research,” Au commented. “And it’s spawned applying for an NIH grant to build off the infant/toddler study. We keep going with the momentum!”
Whaley has appreciated the opportunity to mentor students within the collaboration: “We provide practical experience for students, and it helps us to have access to them. The partnership continues to affect the next generation of researchers.”
Farley underscored the importance of helping new researchers form relationships with collaborators. “You can get isolated at a university, and if you want to reach the front lines with your research, it helps to have a long-term working relationship with the people that are providing the services,” she said.
The collaborators are proud of their longstanding partnership and the number and impact of the different projects they have worked on. “I believe that all the work we've accomplished together is going to make WIC even better. We now have the data to support some of the needed changes,” said Ritchie.