Testimony of Rachel Metz, Data and Research Manager before the Committee on Health

April 4, 2022
Person Testifying: Rachel Metz
Title: Research Manager, DC Action
Testimony Heard By: Committee on Health

Hello Chair Gray and members of the Committee on Health. Thank you for the opportunity to address the DC Council as it reviews the proposed Fiscal Year 2023 budget for the Department of Health. I am Rachel Metz, the Data and Research Manager at DC Action.

Chair Gray, we want to thank you, the Health Committee and DC Health for funding to conduct outreach to enroll eligible District residents in the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program this past year, as well as DC Health’s flexibility in continuing to provide telehealth services. In the District, WIC is one tool among many to combat food insecurity and help counter racial inequities. While levels of food insecurity have fluctuated over the course of the pandemic, from January 26 to February 7 of this year  nearly one in seven District households with children said that they sometimes or often didn’t have enough to eat. Due to the legacy of discrimination and racism, Black and Latinx families are far more likely to have to contend with food insecurity, with more than one in four Black and Latinx families with children saying they have done so this winter.

Even worse, according to the most recent pre-pandemic publicly available data, fewer than half of eligible residents are enrolled in WIC (44.6% in 2018), which is a lower share than in neighboring Maryland and Virginia and than the national average, meaning that families who could benefit from WIC may not be participating in the program. This is especially true of families who have young children but not infants because once an infant turns one, many participants drop out of WIC. The participation rates for children ages one to four is lower each year children age, while nutritional needs remain.

We encourage the Health Committee to ensure that WIC – including through the WIC Expansion Act – receives adequate funding to conduct outreach to enroll all eligible families in WIC, and reduce barriers to participation to keep all eligible families in the program. Specifically, we recommend adequate funding for the Department of Health to:

  • Simplify enrollment across programs

The District has stalled on developing the Early Childhood Integrated Data System (ECIDS). This system would create linkages and partnerships between programs that support families (e.g. WIC, SNAP, child care subsidy, TANF) so that enrollment in any one of these programs simplifies the application process for all others for which they are eligible.

  • Fund the WIC Expansion Act adequately so the District can equip new grocery stores to participate in WIC

District residents have long faced disparities in access to grocery and healthy food stores. You have championed the establishment of new grocery stores east of the river, and we appreciate your work to help make healthy food accessible for all Washingtonians. It’s important that we ensure that people can afford to shop there. Supporting new grocery stores in the administrative and technical work necessary to participate in WIC can help ensure that these new options are truly accessible to District families.

  • Successfully implement eWIC

WIC is in the process of transitioning to electronic benefits cards (EBT), which simplify WIC transactions in the checkout line, eliminate the stigma of paying with paper vouchers, enable stronger agency program management and oversight and, during the COVID-19 pandemic in particular, allow for online purchases. DC WIC has committed to piloting eWIC this spring and fully implementing it this calendar year. That is long overdue, and while we know how much hard work is going into the transition we truly hope this is the last year we have to ask that it be completed this year.

  • Adopt a hybrid approach to nutrition education

In national surveys and focus groups, WIC participants’ biggest complaints were about the in-office requirement for nutrition education and that the nutrition education material was not helpful. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the nutrition education component has been waived for participants, and telemedicine and virtual video-conferencing appointments have been successful. Once COVID-19 case counts allow a potential return to in-person programming we recommend a hybrid approach so that families can choose the option (in person vs. remote) that poses the fewest hurdles for them.