Food Assistance:

WIC Faces Challenges in Providing Nutrition Services

GAO-02-142: Published: Dec 4, 2001. Publicly Released: Dec 7, 2001.

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The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) serves almost half of all infants and about one-quarter of all children between one and four years of age in the United States. The WIC program faces the following challenges: (1) coordinating its nutrition services with health and welfare programs undergoing considerable change, (2) responding to health and demographic changes in the low-income population, (3) recruiting and keeping a skilled staff, (4) improving the use of information technology to enhance service delivery and program management, (5) assessing the effect of nutrition services, and (6) meeting increased program requirements without a corresponding increase in funding. This report identifies 16 approaches to address these challenges. Each of the approaches has advantages and disadvantages that policymakers should consider.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: USDA's Food and Nutrition Service awarded a contract to Burger, Carroll, and Associates (BCA) to study the feasibility of collecting WIC staffing data through an administrative data collection process. In consultation with the National WIC Association (formerly the National Association of WIC Directors), BCA developed a paper and web-based instrument to collect staffing data, such as salaries and information on retention and recruitment efforts. The instrument was pilot tested in fall 2004 by 12 volunteer local WIC agencies, and a summary report is being finalized by the contractor. These results will help USDA determine whether it is feasible to implement an ongoing data reporting system.

    Recommendation: In order to help Congress and the Department of Agriculture identify strategies to address the program's challenges in recruiting and retaining a skilled staff and assessing the effects of nutrition services, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrator of the Food and Nutrition Service to work with Economic Research Service and the National Association of WIC Directors to conduct an assessment of the staffing needs of state and local WIC agencies. This assessment should examine factors such as staffing patterns, vacancies, salaries, benefits, duties, turnover, and retention.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FNS has worked with USDA's Economic Research Service, the Institute of Medicine (IOM), and other stakeholders to strategically plan and conduct evaluations of the impact of the WIC program. A comprehensive review and synthesis of published program impact research, for WIC as well as other domestic food assistance programs, was completed in late 2004. This review identified areas where knowledge of program impact is thin, such as its impact on breastfeeding mothers. FNS has focused recent energy on the pressing topics of obesity prevention, breastfeeding promotion, and IOM recommendations for food package changes. It has completed a study of WIC obesity prevention interventions, designed an evaluation of breastfeeding peer counseling approaches, and plans to pilot test and evaluate food package revisions. In addition, FNS supported an ERS study on innovative WIC practices that profiled 20 programs, highlighting breastfeeding promotion, nutrition education, and innovative service delivery approaches.

    Recommendation: In order to help Congress and the Department of Agriculture identify strategies to address the program's challenges in recruiting and retaining a skilled staff and assessing the effects of nutrition services, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrator of the Food and Nutrition Service to work with the Economic Research Service, the National Association of WIC Directors, and other stakeholders, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to develop a strategic plan to evaluate the impacts of specific WIC nutrition services. This plan should include information on the types of research that could be done to evaluate the impacts of specific nutrition services as well as the data and the financial resources that would be needed to conduct such research.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

 

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