These days, plenty of Vermont families are tightening their belts and budgets, struggling to adjust to rising food and fuel prices. Mine is no exception. We've relied on the usual smart- shopper strategies: clipping coupons, looking for sales, buying generic brands, planting more vegetables in the garden plot.
But last May, my partner Ann-Elise and I discovered a new way to save on our grocery bills. When we enrolled our son in Dr. Dynasaur, Vermont's state-subsidized children's health-care program, we found out that he automatically qualified for weekly deliveries of free food through the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, better known as WIC.
But did we want to accept free food from the government?
If you had asked me a year ago, I would have said no. Honestly, I've never thought of myself as someone who would need help feeding my family. Ann-Elise and I are both college graduates. We have good jobs, though she works part-time so she can stay home with our kids - our son, who's 2, and our daughter, born in July. We own our house. We're frugal. We have good credit. We make more money now than we ever have.
But none of that changes the fact that we're trying to feed, clothe and house a family of four on less than $60,000 a year - something that's getting harder and harder to do.
So I swallowed my stubborn middle-class pride and we signed our son up for WIC. Now both Ann-Elise and our daughter are enrolled, too.
On Tuesday nights, we leave an empty cooler on our porch. The next morning between 4 and 5 a.m., Uncle Sam - or, more accurately, a guy in a truck - drops off some food.
Our ration varies from week to week, but may include Welch's juice concentrate, dry cereal, a block of cheese, a dozen eggs and containers of Lactaid - our son is allergic to cow's milk. We also get Farm to Family coupons, which we use to buy fresh produce at the Winooski Farmers' Market.
Given the state of the economy, is it any surprise that our family is part of a trend? According to Vermont WIC director Donna Bister, WIC participation is up this year. In June 2008, 16,832 Vermonters received food from WIC - that's 600 more than in June 2007. In fact, 54 percent of all infants born in Vermont are enrolled in WIC at birth. And Bister expects the number to only increase.
"I was just on a call with my colleagues from New England and New York," she says, "and all of us are seeing a slow but steady rise in participation." In some states, the total number of WIC recipients is up by more than 10 percent over last year.
Frankly, I still feel conflicted about my family's participation in the program. Though I'm grateful for the food, I haven't always felt comfortable receiving it.
That's partly because of my own shame, irrational though it may be. I confess to being thankful that the WIC truck delivers so early - I can't help wondering what the neighbors would think. That's ridiculous, I know. Even Ann-Elise thinks I'm nuts.
But my hang-ups aren't the only thing contributing to my discomfort. Getting WIC food has also put my family at the mercy of a system that sometimes makes false assumptions about us, and that can be demeaning.
When Ann-Elise went to the WIC office to collect our Farm to Family coupons, a woman told her she had to attend an information session. That policy may make sense on a general level, but Ann-Elise, an avid gardener and former vegetable farmer, was already familiar with the coupons. She used to accept them herself at Burlington-area farmers' markets.
In this bureaucratic setting, her experience became irrelevant - and invisible. At the session, the well-meaning instructor actually greeted her by pointing to a basket and saying, "These are beets. Have you ever seen beets before?"
I'm sure there are people on WIC who don't know their root vegetables, but can we really be the only ones who find that question insulting? Just because we qualify for assistance doesn't mean that we don't know how and what to eat.
My ambivalence about WIC led me to learn more about Vermont's program. And, despite my reservations, what I've learned so far is both interesting and encouraging.
WIC was established in 1974 to improve early childhood nutrition. Unlike food stamps, it provides specific supplementary foods full of protein, calcium, iron or Vitamins A and C, which are important in early childhood development. WIC also distributes infant formula to mothers who aren't breastfeeding their children.
Over the years, studies have shown that better nutrition during those critical early years results in healthier kids. WIC participants have longer gestation periods, higher birth weights and reduced incidence of infant mortality and anemia - and, consequently, lower Medicaid costs. In other words, it's cheaper to feed moms and kids than it is to deal with the fallout of bad nutrition.
To qualify for WIC according to federal requirements, you have to earn less than 185 percent of the U.S. Poverty Income Guidelines - $35,798 for a family of four. But you can also access WIC through Medicaid - or, in Vermont, through Dr. Dynasaur, whose income standards are relatively high. A family of four can earn up to $60,156 and still qualify for Dr. Dynasaur, which is how we got in. Barely.
I have always felt guilty that my family literally eats up resources meant for people who might need them more. But when I mention this to WIC director Bister, she gently dismisses my concern.
"It's not meant to be the kind of program that's only for very, very low-income people who would be hungry without it," she says. "WIC is primarily a health program. We welcome any family who needs our help and can meet the guidelines."
Bister knows the system well - she started working with WIC as a clerk in 1976, and became the director in 1989. She explains that WIC is funded through a federal subsidy, and notes that Vermont's office is in "very good shape right now" financially. She also assures me that the USDA, which administers WIC, is committed to ensuring funds for all eligible families. So I shouldn't worry about my kids eating someone else's food.
And Bister's got another convincing argument up her sleeve - WIC participation is good for the local ag economy. Vermont's WIC program spends $10 million a year on food, a third to half of which goes to buy local products.
"Most of our milk comes from Vermont producers," Bister boasts. "Our home delivery vendors have a deal with Cabot cheese. A lot of our eggs are local." And the money from the Farm to Family coupons goes directly to local farmers.
"That's been a big benefit to the program," Bister explains, "because we can say to families like yours that might be a little hesitant about applying that it's not just good for your family, but it's supporting Vermont farmers and producers."
And WIC does provide important education to people who are "nutritionally at risk." The program offers activities and cooking classes at local parent-child centers and partners with groups such as the Campaign to End Childhood Hunger.
Going a step further to address the problem of childhood obesity, Vermont's office has created an initiative called "Fit WIC" that promotes physical activity. Families with kids aged 3 to 5 get a handbook full of developmentally appropriate exercises, which Bister says has been used as a national model.
Bister admits that my family's experience with WIC's nutrition education was "weird." But she adds that the one-size-fits-all model is changing - her staff recently completed a statewide training to help them turn nutrition education into a conversation rather than a recitation of facts.
"We really encourage our staff to start with where people are at," she says. "We ask that they assess people's knowledge before they launch into an educational thing."
That approach should make new clients more comfortable asking for help - especially families like ours, who are using WIC benefits to get by during tough times.
"I hope," says Bister, "that the next time your family goes to WIC for a visit, you can see a difference."
I hope so, too. But I'm also hoping we don't have too many more visits. As much as I appreciate the help, I look forward to the day when we won't need it.