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Hochul announces initiative to improve food benefit access for women, infants & children


Thu, Mar 23rd 2023 09:40 pm

Feedback collected through live online chat function, interviews & surveys will be used to improve experience with WIC program

Gov. Kathy Hochul announced a new client feedback initiative her team said will improve understanding of the challenges New Yorkers face enrolling in the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, also known as WIC. Announced as part of Hochul's 2023 State of the State address, the New York State Department of Health will partner with Code for America to pilot a live, online chat program that will help the agency gather client feedback to improve the WIC program and enrollment statewide.

"Despite being a critical resource for struggling families, the WIC program isn't used by nearly as many New Yorkers who are eligible for these food benefits or by many families who are already enrolled in the program," Hochul said. "This initiative will help us identify ways to eliminate bureaucratic hurdles, simplify the enrollment processes, and implement new technology so that struggling families have better access to healthy, nutritious foods."

Initially, Code for America will help implement a live online chat function to replace the Department of Health's automated chat bot that appears on the agency's WIC page, which will connect individuals to a WIC staffer for live interaction.

Hochul’s team said, “Live interaction is an effective way to guide applicants through the process and enrollees with using their benefits, while also providing an invaluable source of feedback that can be coupled with client interviews and other qualitative and quantitative research methods to better understand challenges with WIC enrollment and usage.”

During a second phase of the project, the Department of Health will work with Code for America to implement improvements to the WIC program based on the gathered feedback. The partnership will enable the agency to determine what is preventing eligible families from participating and taking full advantage of the program, and then use that information to improve the delivery of WIC services.

Acting Health Commissioner Dr. James McDonald said, "By gathering input from families participating in the WIC program, we can enhance the customer experience and make it easier for New York families to access the nutritious foods required for healthy growth and development of children. By collaborating with Code for America to test live chat and other techniques for gathering input, we can seek ways to help increase participation and make the program more user-friendly for those who depend on WIC."

The WIC program provides federal funding to states for supplemental foods, health care referrals, and nutrition education for low-income pregnant, breastfeeding, and non-breastfeeding postpartum women; and to infants and children up to age 5 who are found to be at nutritional risk. The Department of Health was among four agencies selected to participate in the second cohort of Code for America's Safety Net Innovation Lab, which is aimed at making state-administered public benefits programs more equitable and accessible.

A press release noted, “Nationally, about half of the families eligible for WIC participate in the program, and those enrolled in the program do not consistently use their food benefits. Data compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service this year found that roughly 706,000 New Yorkers were eligible for WIC in 2020, but only 363,000 participated in the program.

“Food insecurity has been consistently associated with poor health outcomes in children, including poorer overall health status, acute and chronic health problems, and limited health care access. Participation in WIC has been associated with healthier births, improved birth weights, reduced risk of infant mortality, better infant-feeding practices, more nutritious diets, better access to primary and preventive health care, and improved cognitive development in children, among other positive health outcomes.

CEO Amanda Renteria said, "Code for America works shoulder-to-shoulder with government partners and community organizations with the goal of creating a human-centered safety net. Through the Safety Net Innovation Lab, state governments are taking major steps toward systemic change in how people receive benefits like food assistance, health care and other basic needs."

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