On a personal level, Paula Golden well knows the federal program aimed at providing food and nutritional information to women, infants and children. In the 1970s she needed help feeding her three young boys, the oldest of whom is now 45, and was introduced to Northeast Valley Health Corporation — a San Fernando nonprofit health center that provides the Special Supplemental Nutritional program for women, infants and children — widely known as WIC.
Supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service, WIC has for nearly 50 years aimed to reduce disparities that impact the health of women and their children.
Golden, an author, was selling her self-illustrated baby books in front of a WIC clinic nearly three decades ago when an employee at Northeast Valley Health told Golden she didn’t think they could buy her books — but that they needed an artist.
So Golden took her art portfolio to an interview and was hired on the spot. Over the next 27 years, Golden pursued her studies and became a graphic artist at Northeast Valley Health’s WIC program. Today she holds a media manager position at Northeast Valley Health’s WIC program that includes outreach, and she also acts as a liaison to companies providing food to WIC participants.
“(WIC) provides families with needed necessities like bread, milk, eggs and cheese,” Golden said on Tuesday, Nov. 7, manning a display table on the campus at California State University, Northridge. Years ago as a young mother looking for help to feed her children, she remembers, “I got nutrition education at a park in my community. This is a passion for me.”
CSUN, in conjunction with Northeast Valley Health, has the only satellite WIC office on any of California’s 23 CSU campuses. It’s been up and running for five years, although it had limited operations during the COVID shutdown. The WIC program is known for its proven wide-ranging health benefits, including longer and safer pregnancies with fewer premature births and infant deaths.
Recently, university officials were awarded a $338,201 grant to develop outreach strategies to make college students more aware of the WIC program. CSUN is trying several approaches including scattering WIC lawn signs around campus and plugging the WIC benefits at campus events.
Pregnant and breast-feeding mothers, and those with children under five years old, are the main targets for this help, but a dad and his child can also qualify by meeting the program’s guidelines.
“CSUN has a large campus with complicated rules and red tape, but we just need more of a presence on campus,” said Joy Ahrens, director of WIC at Northeast Valley Health. “Forty two percent of students on campus have basic needs that are not being met. Having a WIC office on campus is important to address students’ basic needs. We are hoping to get to 75 clients.”
With this new grant, university officials plan to hire more staff and increase the number of hours the WIC office is open, in hopes that the WIC program will grow beyond the 26 clients it serves on campus. Of the WIC participants enrolled at the CSUN site, 56 percent are children aged one to four years old, 20 percent are infants, 12 percent are mothers breastfeeding, 8 percent are prenatal women, and 4 percent are non-breastfeeding postpartum mothers.
Organizers know there are plenty more students who qualify, but they face a frustrating situation because they don’t know which students are eligible.
In 2018, California State University released its Study of Student Basic Needs report showing that 41.6% of CSU students reported food insecurity. But the COVID years put a damper on getting the word out about the WIC program and the help it offers.
To address that problem, Northeast Valley Health and the university’s Marilyn Magaram Center of Food Science, Nutrition and Dietetics, worked to get key questions added to the National College Health Assessment Survey taken every two years, including, “Are you pregnant, or breastfeeding, or do you have a child under five years old and have you heard about WIC?”
“When we started collaborating, we knew there were many students and staff who may be eligible for the WIC program, but (who) did not think they were eligible — or even knew about the program and the benefit of this great program,” said Annette Besnilian, executive director of the Marilyn Magaram Center of Food Science, Nutrition and Dietetics.
The WIC teams make their presence known every Tuesday during the farmers market on campus and “nutrition justice interns” help to spread the word about nutrition, lactation education and referrals.
Besnilian cited several efforts such as the Support Food Recovery Network, CSUN Food Pantry and campus partners including the Northeast Valley Health, all working to increase food security for the campus community. “These are all hands-on training and education opportunities for our students, and it gives our students the opportunity to help increase awareness about these wonderful resources available to them,” Besnilian said.