County Nutrition Program Growing

Riverside County wants to enroll 9,000 women, children

11:10 PM PST on Monday, February 14, 2011

The Press-Enterprise

A troubled economy and double-digit unemployment have boosted the number of low-income women and children in the federal nutrition program in Riverside County by about 23 percent since 2006.

And Riverside County Public Health Department officials believe another 9,000 people qualify for help.

Enrollment in Riverside County’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC, has grown from about 70,800 participants in the 2006 fiscal year to almost 87,000 now, county Public Health Department records show.

Despite the increase, officials say they have room for thousands more women and children throughout the county.

“There is a large need for assistance in our area,” said Gayle Hoxter, Riverside County’s public health program chief, adding that caseloads in Moreno Valley grew from about 9,500 to more than 13,000 in five years. “We’re seeing families who we have never seen before.”

In San Bernardino County, three nonprofit organizations have been contracted to add four WIC centers throughout the county to add more clients. The county Department of Public Health operates 17 centers and serves 84,400 people.

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Rodrigo Peña / Special to The Press-Enterprise
Health educator Eldaa Rivera stresses the benefits of exercise at a WIC center in Moreno Valley.

“We are actually able to pull back some of the staff that are being forced to travel to the more remote areas and concentrate them more heavily in the areas where we continue to have a strong presence,” said county spokesman David Wert, especially in San Bernardino, Victorville and Fontana.

WIC is best known for vouchers that participants receive to exchange for food, such as milk, eggs, cereal, fruits and vegetables. The program also provides breastfeeding and health education and might link people to other county public health services, including family planning, immunizations and dental care.

The monthly vouchers are worth $50 to $60 and go to pregnant women and women with children younger than 6 years old who qualify.

Single, unemployed parents with a child younger than age 6 often qualify for WIC, even if they receive the maximum amount of unemployment benefits, Hoxter said.

Maribel Martinez said she enrolled in WIC after she lost her job last year. She and her 3-year-old son, Noah, recently attended a health education class at a Moreno Valley WIC clinic as she waited to receive her vouchers. Martinez, 35, said she could have qualified for the program while she was working as a medical assistant, but was too proud to seek help.

“A lot of people feel like it’s part of (food stamps),” she said. “I was one of those people.”

Laurie True, executive director of the California WIC Association, said Riverside County’s WIC program is growing because there are many more people these days in Martinez’s situation living in the Inland area. True’s nonprofit organization lobbies on behalf of WIC directors and programs statewide.

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Rodrigo Peña / Special to The Press-Enterprise
Health services assistant Jessika Morrow, left, leads a group in “Simon Says” at the WIC center in Moreno Valley as an example of a fun activity that gets people to exercise.

“The high need in the Inland is very different than some of the coast counties,” she said. “The need is really great.”

Riverside County officials also have been aggressive in expanding WIC to as many people as it can to get as much money as possible, True said. True’s association tracks local WIC programs to ensure they serve as many people as they can to avoid grant reductions.

The state must spend at least 97 percent of the money it receives or risk getting less money the following year.


San Bernardino County officials a couple of years ago moved in a different direction.

The county Public Health Department has capped WIC enrollment at its 17 centers at 84,400 since fiscal year 2009. Officials decided to allow three private nonprofit agencies to open four WIC clinics to absorb new participants.

“That decision was based on the large unmet need in the county, and the fact that the (county) program, with the slowdown in hiring and the geographic nature of the county, could not possibly meet all the need in the county,” Wert said. “Another factor was that WIC was not fully funding all costs related to administration of the program.”

Wert didn’t know how much the county spends on overhead costs for support services or how much more it would have cost the county to expand the program.

The county received an estimated $12.7 million in federal WIC money this fiscal year, up from about $8.5 million in fiscal year 2006 when it had about 73,400 participants.

“What we are discovering … is that for this type of program, community-based providers can do it cheaper,” Wert said.

thankful for help

Dozens of women and their children on a recent morning filled Moreno Valley’s Heacock Street WIC center to attend mandatory health education classes and counseling sessions and pick up vouchers.

Health educator Eldaa Rivera stressed the importance of physical activity to groups of women and children who gathered in her classroom. She led a brief game of “Simon Says” to encourage them to exercise with their children before the group left with their vouchers.

Alejandra Aguirre participated in the class with her 4-year-old daughter, Yvette. Aguirre, a stay-at-home mother of four children, said she started the WIC program 10 years ago during her first pregnancy.

“It makes a big difference to help feed your family,” she said, adding that the vouchers help stretch her family’s money.

“I have a sister-in-law who I finally made get an appointment to enroll in the program. My brother is unemployed. It would at least help them get something in the refrigerator.”

Reach Lora Hines at 951-368-9444 or


The U.S. Department of Agriculture has an estimated $7.6 billion WIC budget and has operated the WIC program nationwide since 1972. However, the program could lose about $760 million if Congress passes a Republican budget cut proposal.

California receives an estimated $1 billion annually for WIC. The money is distributed to 84 agencies that operate local programs throughout the state.

Riverside County Department of Public Health operates 17 clinics and receives $14.8 million in federal WIC money, up from nearly $7.7 million in fiscal year 2006. The county spends about $1.5 million for support services to run the program.

San Bernardino County Department of Public Health operates 17 WIC centers and receives about $12.7 million in federal WIC money.



Riverside County Department of Public Health’s WIC outreach

San Bernardino County Department of Public Health’s WIC

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