Remembering the roots of WIC

Published 9:38 am Wednesday, January 31, 2024

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By Jay Compton

Health officials from all over the country gathered in Pineville on Tuesday to celebrate 50 years of the WIC program helping women, infants and children. Gov. Andy Beshear and Pineville Mayor Scott Madon were among the speakers at the event.

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The country’s first WIC clinic was opened in Pineville in 1974. Tuesday’s celebration was highlighted by Dr. David Paige, whose voucher program at Johns Hopkins University became the basis for WIC, presenting a Lifetime Achievement Award to Ms. Betty Hopkins, one of the original nurses at the Pineville WIC clinic.

“Betty Hopkins is a hero. No one knew what WIC was and she was the first nurse to take this on,” Paige said. “There was no one to train her, there was no precedent, there was no manual to follow, there was none of that at all. She had to define what WIC is and she was able to do that magnificently… It was Ms. Betty Hopkins who set the tone.”

In the late 1960s and early 70s policymakers, physicians and public health officials were alarmed by the growing number of low income mothers and babies in America suffering from malnutrition. Many young women were having difficult pregnancies because they couldn’t afford to buy enough food. In some parts of the country doctors responded by setting up clinics and prescribing women with vouchers that they could use to get what they needed.

That idea needed to be brought to scale nationally to have a major impact on the problem. A two-year demonstration project was launched by Congress in 1972 with Pineville opening the first WIC clinic two years later.

“Whether they know it or not, there are millions of women and families around the country over multiple generations who all owe Pineville a debt of gratitude. It was here in Pineville 50 years ago this month where the first WIC clinic opened its doors,” said Georgia Mitchell, interim president and CEO of the National WIC Association.

Gov. Beshear said he was not surprised to hear the program got its start in Pineville.

“I’m not surprised at all that this is where WIC started because we in Kentucky care about each other. This county and the way its people look out after each other is a very special thing,” he said.

Most state WIC programs provide vouchers that participants use at authorized food stores. A wide variety of state and local organizations cooperate in providing the food and health care benefits, and 46,000 merchants nationwide accept WIC vouchers.

“Evidence shows that WIC participation is associated with fewer infant deaths, fewer premature births, and reduced infant mortality, and that’s nothing short of incredible,” said U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Dr. Tameka Owens.

Beshear added that he was honored to be a part of the 50th anniversary celebration.

“This is us truly believing that every child is a child of God and making sure whatever circumstance they are born into we give them the greatest care, caring for them like they were our own,” he said.

Dr. Paige had started a voucher program at his Baltimore office in the late 1960s and it was expanded all across Maryland by the early 1970s. He said Pineville’s clinic was not only the first, but the most courageous for the program.

“I was on the front lines and there was  this titanic battle between Congress, President Nixon, the Assistant Secretary of Agriculture and the advocates. The advocates asked Pineville if they wanted to participate and Pineville was in the crosshairs of this monumental battle with respect to funding the WIC program,” he said. “The administration wasn’t really in favor of doing it and it took a federal judge to release the funds. Then the advocates were looking for programs that could start up quickly. Pineville was one of the first applicants and Pineville said yes. They were willing to do what was necessary to take care of their community.”

Paige credited Marlow Cook, a Republican U.S. senator for Kentucky at the time, for getting the funding bill passed.

“It was an extraordinary act of courage and they asked Senator Cook why he did it. He said: ‘My constituents need it,’” Paige said. “What an extraordinary moment in bipartisanship, what an extraordinary moment in the government coming together to create a service for those who needed it most.”

In the 50 years since the first WIC clinic opened in Pineville, there have been 270 million visits by WIC clients across the country.

“What if the program had failed? What if the folks at the Health Department and the folks that really pushed this program had not gone out and made it work?” Pineville Mayor Scott Madon said. “I can speak first hand about family members and friends that are on WIC and use WIC and it has really helped them a lot.”

Kentucky WIC Director Nichole Nicholas said WIC is able to celebrate 50 years because the program works. She credits WIC with saving healthcare dollars and Medicaid funds by preventing anemia in infants and children and ensuring that women enter prenatal care early.

She added that WIC is more than just funding and vouchers and EBT cards, it’s the human connection that makes the program work.

“If you’ve ever been in a WIC clinic you can see that there is a connection and a rapport between the WIC participants and the providers. Women can come to the WIC program and know that they are getting the help that they need to start a healthy and strong family,” Nicholas said.

Tuesday’s event included a proclamation signing by Gov. Beshear in recognition of the WIC program’s 50 years and Mitchell presenting certificates in recognition of services to Bell County Health Department nurses Sarah Hoskins, Melissa Burnett, Jodi Keith, Stephanie Caldwell, Elizabeth Holbrook and Donna Jenkins.