Columbus Dispatch, April 20, 2008: Ohio can’t get enough of nutrition program

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By Catherine Candisky

The 17-month-old girl clutched a bottle of milk in one hand and her pregnant mother’s skirt with the other as they met with a nutritionist at a West Side clinic.

The girl represents thousands of children: One of every two babies in Ohio receives food and nutrition services through the Women, Infants and Children program, the tax-funded nutrition effort for low-income women and children.

Enrollment in the 35-year-old program is at an all-time high in Ohio as stagnant wages and soaring food and energy prices make it difficult for many families to keep food on the table — and for WIC to adequately serve needy families.

“Around this time, we need to get rid of the bottle,” explained Anna Marie Fornadel, a registered dietitian, smiling at the girl. “It’s not good for her teeth.”

Hawa Maalow, 22, turned to a Somali interpreter, who translated.

“She said when she puts it in a cup, she spills it all over,” Abdullahi Ali told Fornadel.

“I know, but you’ll want her off the bottle before the new baby comes,” Fornadel said to Maalow.

Her second child due in July, Maalow left with coupons for milk, cereal, eggs, cheese, beans and peanut butter, and an appointment to return in three months.

WIC has long enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress, but it isn’t an entitlement program. The amount of money it gets is totally up to Congress.

In Franklin County, enrollment has jumped 59 percent during the past decade. Statewide, it’s up 11 percent; nationwide, it’s 12 percent.

Fourteen WIC clinics serve 35,000 women and children in Franklin County, second in the state to Cuyahoga County, which serves 35,800.

Ohio recipients get about $32 worth of food coupons a month. Michele Frizzell of the Ohio Department of Health said recipients are encouraged to keep grocery costs down by using coupons and discount cards, and by buying store-brand products.

“We anticipate we will be short $6 million in food this year;” she said. Her agency is counting on the federal government for additional aid.

While the struggling economy is a factor in the Columbus area, the main reason for the spike is an increase in the immigrant population.

“We have a huge need in our Somali and Hispanic communities,” said Stephen Hill, supervisor of the WIC West office on Sullivant Avenue.

On Monday, the clinic had appointments with 225 patients. As on every Monday, a Somali interpreter was on hand to help the staff of nine deal with clients who have fled the war-torn African nation.

A Spanish interpreter works there on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

To receive services, patients must show proof of residency and meet income requirements. Under federal law, U.S. citizenship is not required.

“We are serving huge populations of immigrants as well as refugees, and they come with nothing,” said Sheila Johnson, a registered dietitian at WIC West who has been with the program 27 years. “We used to consider ourselves busy if we saw 10 people. Now, a busy day is 35 or 40.”

Somali women, wearing colorful scarves and long skirts, and small children filled the waiting room. Inside, interpreter Ali rushed from room to room as the youngsters were weighed and their parents were counseled.

WIC’s goal is to improve health by educating recipients about nutrition, promoting breast-feeding and providing foods high in protein or iron.

Johnson said that many immigrants believe infant formula to be superior to breast milk because they perceive American children to be healthier. Many also develop a quick love for soda because it’s so sweet.

“I say, ‘Don’t take our bad habits, just the good ones,’ ” she said.

The city last dealt with an influx of refugees in the 1980s when many Cambodians arrived. More recently, Latinos and Somalis have been settling in central Ohio along with smaller numbers of Ukrainians.

“People come here because the benefits are good and the cost of living low,” Johnson said. “We have been very generous. We put the welcome mat out.”

That night, at Maalow’s two-bedroom apartment on the South Side, Maalow, 22, prepared dinner as her daughter slept on a couch, the only piece of furniture in the living room, where large rugs cover the floor and colorful fabrics hang from ceiling to floor. The doorways are covered with wooden beads and Maalow’s prized possessions; her dishes and glasses are displayed on a small table.

Maalow and her family fled Somalia when she was 4. It took them two weeks to walk to neighboring Kenya, where they lived in a refugee camp until coming to the United States in 2004.

She lived in New Hampshire and Indiana before moving with her husband and daughter to Columbus, home to an estimated 35,000 to 80,000 Somalis. The city has the second-largest Somali population in the country, next to Minneapolis.

Maalow said life is good for them here. Her husband has steady work in temporary labor jobs, and his mother, sister and other relatives live nearby. In addition to WIC, Maalow and her daughter receive tax-funded health insurance. The food coupons help stretch their grocery dollars.

“Baby Paula drinks lot of milk. After I buy milk, nothing left,” Maalow said.

When other family members arrived at her apartment, Maalow placed dinner on the floor, per Somali custom, and they sat to eat.

Maalow handed her daughter a glass of mango juice. Paula took a sip and handed the glass back to her mother without a spill.

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