TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — The Sunshine State has used a federal program known as WIC, to help families in need, since 1974 but experts warn, the program has failed to keep up with modern technology and over 200,000 Floridians who qualify for the assistance offered by the program are not receiving the critical help they need.

It’s a fully federally funded program, meaning 100% of the money that pays for WIC benefits come from federal tax dollars and budgets. Beneficiaries include pregnant mothers, infants, and children under 5-years-old.

In Florida, more than 400,000 residents get money from the WIC program, though over 200,000 more residents qualify for the program’s assistance. Reasons why so many Floridians who are eligible for the program and aren’t participating was unclear, though some of it has to do with how residents get access to the applications process.

A new study by Johns Hopkins University, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found use of WIC in low-income populations led to “improved maternal, neonatal–birth, and infant–child health outcomes or differences in outcomes by subgroups and WIC enrollment duration.”

“You must have a total household income equal to or less than the amounts shown in the WIC Income Guidelines OR you are income-eligible if you are currently receiving Medicaid, Temporary Cash Assistance (TCA), or Food Assistance,” according to Florida Department of Health eligibility notes.

The Income guidelines publicly shown by FDOH are based on income and household size. The income guidelines say for women who are pregnant, each unborn baby counts as one extra person, for calculating the household size.

The guidelines are listed below:

Household SizeAnnual IncomeMonthlyTwice-MonthlyBi-WeeklyWeekly
(Source: FDOH WIC Income Guidelines)

Families with more than eight people in the household are encouraged to call their local WIC office for details on program eligibility.

Unlike beneficiaries who receive Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program funds, or money from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, WIC is aimed at specifically helping new and young mothers with children under 5-years-old.

According to information from the FDOH, “WIC is a nutrition program for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding or who have recently been pregnant, infants & children under age 5.” It also specifically helps breastfeeding mothers.

For those on the lowest ends of Florida’s economic spectrum, the study in Annals of Internal Medicine said the effect WIC participation has on life for its beneficiaries includes more than just food security. Not only do WIC families see more positive birth outcomes and fewer infant deaths.

To some extent, the study found that WIC participants also had an increased use of child preventative services like vaccines, according to the study, in addition to other social services. However, those who did participate in WIC were more likely to reduce alcohol consumption while pregnant, as well as seek out health care. The study did not see any correlation between the proportion of participants who did or did not smoke cigarettes, dependent on participation status.

WIC use did have a “direct” effect on preterm births. The study found “WIC participation was associated with lower odds of preterm birth,” as well as reducing the risk of preterm birth and increase sing gestation time, or increasing the time a mother remains pregnant, rather than experiencing a premature birth. The National Institute of Health reports premature birth is linked to “adverse outcomes” of babies. The earlier infants are born, the more likely there will be long-term health problems.

Mothers who receive funding assistance from WIC were also more likely to engage in preventative care for themselves and their children, though the study notes more data was needed to fully research the link.

Florida’s infant mortality rate was 5.79 infant deaths per 1,000 children born as of 2020, according to FDOH data. In the Tampa Bay area, there were 46,802 children born in 2020. 314 died, at a rate of 6.71 per 1,000 live births.

CountyLive BirthsInfant DeathsInfant Death Rate
State of Florida209,6321,2135.79
(Source: Florida Department of Health Infant Mortality Data, 2020)

While the infant mortality rate in Florida was lower than in 2019, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the state has more help it could provide.

The FDOH data on WIC eligibility and service is kept in reports on Florida Health Charts. In 2021, it reported nearly 401,000 women, children, and infants were beneficiaries of the WIC program, which is administered by FDOH’s Bureau of WIC Program Services via funding from the Food and Nutrition Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

CountyCount ServedCount EligiblePercent Served
State of Florida400,966636,06763.0%
(Source: Florida Health Charts Data for WIC Eligibility in 2021)

While 401,000 participants benefitted from the WIC program’s administration in Florida in 2021, there are just over 235,000 eligible residents who are not. It means there are more than 235,000 families living in poverty that qualified for WIC and state assistance that are not currently receiving it.

The WIC benefits include immunizations, health screenings, and counseling, in addition to the nutritional and formula purchase assistance provided through Electronic Benefit Transfer cards from the state and federal government.

Data shows about 70% of WIC beneficiaries in Florida are children, with $66.9 million in benefits allotted as of March 31. The data on demographic was compiled by the National WIC Association, a policy advocate organization which tracks WIC data and locations across the U.S.

Put differently, there are more than 235,000 Florida families living below the federal poverty level that are not currently being given help purchasing food, health care, postpartum care, breastfeeding counseling, or substance abuse treatment.

Researchers with the Florida Policy Institute, a non-partisan, and non-profit organization said part of the reason there are families that qualify for benefits but don’t use them is messaging and outreach, as well as a need for modernization.

“The enrollment process has not been modernized to allow families to begin their WIC applications over the internet, a process that works very well in the SNAP program,” Cindy Huddleston, Senior Policy Analyst at Florida Policy Institute, said. “In fact, it would make sense for the state to look at ways to allow families to simultaneously apply for both WIC and SNAP at the same time to capitalize on how successful the SNAP program is in its enrollment.”

In addition, Huddleston said there are examples of single dads, or grandparents, who have custody of young children that may not know they can even apply for the assistance. While the dads and grandparents may not directly qualify, the children they may care for, those who are infants or younger than 5-years-old, still qualify for WIC.

“Also, the fact that, in some counties, the only available times to apply for WIC are during normal business hours and that makes enrollment difficult for families who are working or going to school,” Huddleston said.

WFLA.com has reached out to the Florida Department of Health, which administers the program, to learn more about the WIC program and resident access.