Health centers are seeing a surge in new WIC, food stamp need

Ashley Prettyman, prevention specialist at Harbor Health, worked to prepare a bag of food for distribution to clients at the Food Pantry at Daniel Driscoll – Neponset Health Center. The food pantry is open Tuesdays from 8:30 a.m.- 5 p.m. It's located across the street from the health center at 10 Minot St.

Loreto O’Connor, director of the Women Infants and Children (WIC) program at Dorchester’s Harbor Health Services Inc., has worked with WIC programs for 24 years, but the last few weeks have been an unprecedented experience for her.

“I have never seen the surge in the need for services that we have seen in the last two weeks,” O’Connor told the Reporter on Thursday, noting that it has been “at least 40 percent.”

Harbor Health Services leads a close collaboration with other community health organizations in providing WIC benefits. These include Neponset Health Center, DotHouse Health Center, Codman Square Health Center, and South Boston Community Health Center.

“With a grant from USDA (the US Department of Agriculture) we collaborate really closely with all of those health centers. Our WIC sites are embedded in each of them,” explained O’Connor.

She said that all of Harbor Health’s WIC staff have been working remotely during the crisis. “We’re continuing to see old participants re-enrolling, as well are new participants every day,” she said. “Our staff is working really hard to make sure that every woman and child that needs help is receiving WIC benefits during this time.”

New unemployment claims in Massachusetts and nationally soared again last week after hitting historic levels a week earlier as the viral outbreak continues to wreak havoc in Massachusetts. A record 181,062 people filed initial claims during the week ending March 28, about a 22 percent increase over the prior week, according to non-seasonally adjusted data the Department of Labor published on Thursday.

During the week ending March 21, Massachusetts had the third-largest increase in initial claims among all states, trailing only Pennsylvania and Ohio, according to the department.

Many who find themselves unemployed and facing financial hardship are accessing public benefits like WIC for the first time.

“It’s kind of a learning curve,” O’Connor she said. “It’s all very new to them, but there are resources. We have an app to help them while they’re shopping, our WIC shopper app. It allows them to scan any item and see if it’s in their food prescription.” The app also allows users to access recipes and view their benefits, showing exactly when they benefits start and end.

O’Connor said she wanted to clarify a myth that many first-time users have asked about – that all WIC benefits start at the beginning of the month. “In our state at least, it doesn’t work like that,” she said. “Benefits start on the day of the baby’s birthday.”

She said that staff are providing new waivers and conducting check-in appointments over the phone, providing nutrition education, breastfeeding support services, and health food access information.

“Another thing WIC does is provide referrals to other health and human services agencies,” said O’Connor. “We work to provide food access in as many ways as possible."

The Daniel Driscoll Food Pantry at Neponset Health is open extended hours on Tuesdays from 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m, and it's located across the street from the health center at 10 Minot St. The DotHouse Food Pantry is open for seniors 8:30a.m.-10:30a.m. every Tuesday and 8 a.m. -10 a.m. every Wednesday for rest of community.

She noted that employees are working to connect families to SNAP (food stamp) access, and health insurance services. Harbor Health also has a memorandum of agreement with Eversource, which, O’Connor said, makes families eligible for a 25 percent reduction in their utility bills.

“It’s been noted that families are choosing between food and fuel, and it’s heartbreaking,” she said. “We’ve really never seen such a need before.”

She added that there have definitely been some challenges as a result of the pandemic. “Lots of people are stockpiling groceries and our participants follow specific guidelines. The list we provide them is like a food prescription," said O'Connor.

"There are specific brands and sizes you can buy. For example, if someone has a gallon of one percent milk on their list, they can’t choose two half gallons if there are no one gallons. They don’t have another choice if those products aren’t on the shelf.”

O’Connor did say that there has been some movement on social media asking people who aren’t using WIC benefits to choose other options that aren’t WIC-approved. There are also issues with people stockpiling infant formula, she said.

“Companies are making more, but people who can afford to buy in bulk are stockpiling it and that’s a real challenge,” she said. “Our employees are working to call different stores and pharmacies to locate infant formula.”

They are also helping families with budgeting, recipe ideas, and with trying to navigate what’s happening day-by-day, O’Connor said.
“If you go to a food pantry you might not know what to make with something like dried beans, so we’re trying to put recipes out there. At so many levels, we’re trying to help families. They are really stressed, they don’t know what’s going to happen. None of us really do,” she said.

O’Connor added that Harbor Health will be issuing benefits for three months out during the public health emergency, and will continue for as long as it goes on. She said that her staff isn’t letting the public health emergency stop their work, even if working from home presents some challenges.

“We've been trying to do Zoom and conference calls –WIC appointments require an intake specialist and a nutritionist, so our staff is divided up into teams” she said. “It’s not always easy, but our WIC staff is so dedicated. They’re going above and beyond trying to get to everybody who has applied so that they can have benefits. It means so much.”

Her concern looking forward, past the state of emergency, is that many families will struggle to pull themselves out of debt and will still require assistance.

“Right now, we’re working in the moment, but we’re going to need to support these families for a lot longer,” O’Connor said. “We’ll need to have federal funding. Nutrition service in particular, will need to be funded fully.”

“When it’s over families won’t be back on their feet right away. People might be able to get jobs, but they also might need to dig themselves out of debt. We might want to consider looking at the past six months of earnings when assessing eligibility if possible.”

A State House News Service report was used in compiling this article.