After 27 years of dedicated service, Blueprints WIC Director, Rosa Snyder Boyd, retired on April 27th, 2018. “I’ve spent half of my life or more working in WIC,” said Snyder-Boyd. “It’s been in my life for a long time and I love it.” Rosa Snyder-Boyd graduated from Indiana University of Pennsylvania with her bachelors’ degree in 1978 and then completed her masters’ degree there while working for the Indiana County Community Action Program.
When she came to Blueprints, then Community Action Southwest, to work for WIC as a breastfeeding education coordinator, it was a big step up. “What I knew about WIC when I started here was what I had learned in college,” she admitted. She then worked her way up the ladder to being a nutritionist, then the director of WIC. We sat down with her to talk about her experiences in WIC and the changes that she has seen while working for us might surprise you.
1. WIC has continually improved since she started.
There’s a misconception that government-funded programs tend to stay static. Wrapped up in the red tape that comes with bureaucracy, chipped away at by politicians, and regulated to death are common perceptions that you’ll hear on both sides of the aisle. However, WIC has responded to the people who need it most.
“What’s really changed is how we take care of our clients,” said Snyder-Boyd. “My first job was calling people on a waiting list. Before then, we had postpartum moms that weren’t able to be accommodated on the program because we didn’t have enough food money to serve those women, but when that changed, my job was to let them know that they were eligible for WIC. Many people didn’t want to come back on as clients because they felt that WIC was so limited, someone needed it more than they did.” She laughed. “So that was a very challenging first week.”
However, WIC hasn’t had a waiting list since then and the food has changed to meet families’ needs. “All WIC foods are prescribed and have nutrients that young families generally need. We added whole grains onto the food package in the late nineties because a lot of families were buying white bread and not getting the nutrients they needed,” Snyder-Boyd recalled. “We’ve also reduced the fat in the food package by going with low fat milks and limiting the amount of cheese you can get. The vouchers for fruit and vegetables made a big change because fresh produce is so expensive. It’s amazing to watch a program grow and respond to the public health needs of the nation.”
2. The technology and tools have changed along with WIC’s needs.
Technology in the United States has changed dramatically over the past fifty years. Because states and the federal government have so much private information to protect, they are cautious about the changes that they make in their system. However, despite the perception that government funded programs move at a glacial pace, WIC has continued to refine its approach towards its clients and modern convenience.
“When I started, we actually handwrote out the WIC checks, and for people who were established as clients, we got boxes made out to them and distributed them to our clients. It wasn’t easy if you had to change them,” Snyder-Boyd recalled. “We now do check printing on demand, which makes it much easier for us and our clients. In the future, we’re hoping to be able to have clients use their EBT debit card for WIC. ”
Another big change for WIC was VENA—the Value Enhanced Nutrition Assessment that was developed for WIC offices nationwide. “We cover a lot of issues when we see a family from picky eating to putting your baby on their back to sleep, but if you have an appointment, I only see you for half an hour,” said Snyder-Boyd. “VENA is a blend of counseling and interviewing. It helps us figure out what the family needed and what topics we needed to educate them about, such as breastfeeding or potty training. We also do guided goal setting to help families make change who are willing to change and we follow up on that.”
3. Sometimes, you can create the program you need, red tape or not.
Breastfeeding for new mothers is something that WIC has always emphasized. It is important that babies get all the nutrients that they possibly can to grow up healthy and strong. However, not everyone is raised with breastfeeding or learns how to breastfeed. Sometimes no one in the family does, there is no one there to teach new mothers, or it is not a part of the culture. When Snyder-Boyd started at Blueprints, there was no official program to teach new mothers how to breastfeed.
She had read about peer counseling in other fields and Texas had a peer counseling program for breastfeeding, so Snyder-Boyd went to Texas to learn more. “We wanted to start it here, but we didn’t have the money for it,” she said. “So I ran a volunteer breastfeeding peer counseling program for three or four years until we got the funding for it. Our breastfeeding rates rose from 19 percent to 50 percent.”
Snyder-Boyd regularly trains WIC staff in Western Pennsylvania how to teach their clients how to breastfeed. “It’s really rewarding to see people get excited and learn,” she said. In the future, she hopes to advocate for lactation consultants to be licensed by the state of Pennsylvania to increase availability of those services to new mothers and ensure that insurance companies cover it. “You can know breastfeeding is good for your baby, but if you don’t know how to do it, you won’t be successful,” said Snyder-Boyd. “Families always want to do what’s best for their kids, but sometimes, they just don’t know where to start.”
4. The issues may have changed, but the stereotypes stayed the same.
If you’re poor in the United States, there’s a lot you’re not allowed to have in the court of public opinion. You’re a lazy person who spends all your money on cigarettes and alcohol and cash in your welfare checks to buy lottery tickets or you ignore your kids and spend all your time on your smartphone while eating steak paid for by government assistance. Neither of these are true, but these stereotypes still exist. WIC is a public health program that is not considered welfare, but not everyone knows that or feels that way.
“I had a client who would shop for groceries at night on the other side of town from where she lived so her neighbors wouldn’t see her using WIC checks,” Snyder-Boyd recalled. “We work with the stores to make sure they treat our clients respectfully, but after a clerk waved a client’s WIC check in the air when she was calling over a manager to help her process it, she never shopped there again.”
She has noticed that there has been a decrease in support for new families. “A lot of families are working, but not getting ahead. It’s frustrating to see that gap still exists after 27 years,” she said. “We have parents who have CHIP for their kids, but no insurance for themselves. Many families are moving away and that limits the support system for new mothers. Social media has helped, but it’s not the same. We’re seeing more foster kids in kinship care and more grandparents and relatives bringing the kids in instead of their parents. There’s more couch surfing now than there was in the nineties, too.”
Transportation and daycare are still the two biggest issues clients face, but there is also a very real knowledge gap for people who live in poverty. “There’s a lot more eating out than there was when I started,” said Snyder-Boyd. “It’s hard for single parents to take the time to cook food and when McDonalds is right there at the end of your shift, it seems like the easiest choice. We try to teach people what to do with the food they get from the food bank and Produce to the People. As I said before, families want to do what’s best for their kids, but sometimes, they just don’t know where to start.”
5. WIC isn’t just a health program. It builds communities.
Did you know that when you walk into your local WIC office, you can register to vote? You wouldn’t be the only one who doesn’t. “We give all of our clients that opportunity. We’ll even mail it for you,” said Snyder-Boyd. “We’re always refining our approach to our clients and we want to ensure that they have a voice and they’re heard.”
A big part of WIC is the referrals to other services and WIC puts a lot of effort into training staff to provide them and collaborating with local organizations and different departments. “We have a lot of referrals through our Early Learning programs here and that helps us provide wraparound services to the families we serve,” she said. “I had a client mention to me the other day that she was preparing to make her last payment on a rent to own situation and I was able to connect her with our Home Ownership Center. A lot of families feel awkward when they seek out those services, but if you know me and I’m walking you down the hall to someone who can help you pay your taxes or enroll your child in preschool, it makes it a little easier.”
WIC always prioritizes the health of the clients it serves, and it saves lives. “We’ve helped facilitate victims of domestic violence getting away at some of our clinics,” said Snyder-Boyd. “We work hard to build those relationships with the families we serve because they make a real difference. WIC isn’t stagnant. A living, breathing program changes and improves to match the needs of the time and the people it serves. It’s amazing to have watched WIC change and grow along with Blueprints.”