When people find out they're pregnant, in the midst of all of the nervousness of those first doctors' visits, one of the first things they receive is a list of restricted foods. But for those who are pregnant, live below the poverty line, and receive food assistance through the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), the list of food restrictions is even longer and the nervousness may be more intense.
Though WIC gives pregnant people and parents of children 5 years old and younger vouchers to buy essential groceries like formula and fruit, the support comes with extensive restrictions on which foods qualify. Adding to that, many low-income families experience barriers to accessing grocery stores, especially those who live in food deserts. Marissa Rudd, known as justsunni on TikTok, says pregnancy made her hyper aware of how she was nourishing herself and her developing child. She started using social media to post WIC-approved healthy meals that she enjoyed during her pregnancy to help other WIC recipients.
"As a single mother on WIC, I have a very fixed income, so I decided to use my resources to come up with healthy, colorful options," says Rudd. "WIC was pretty hard for me to figure out initially because of the very specific approved brands and guidelines, so curating recipes helped me learn the program myself and create a resource for my parent community on TikTok."
Rudd hadn't anticipated that so many families were experiencing similar challenges. She's since given birth to a healthy baby, Robyn, but continues to share quality WIC recipes weekly. Each post includes step-by-step instructions and TikTokers can learn how to make meals like salmon rice bowls with salsa, potato kale soup, and blueberry oatmeal breakfast breaks. At first glance, these kinds of meals might seem out of reach for families receiving public assistance, but that's exactly why Rudd's page is important. She fills a necessary gap.
"Could you do a video of WIC-approved items?" asked one commenter. "I'm still struggling when shopping to find WIC approved items," said another.
A different video covers the difference between WIC, a short-term program for pregnant people and young kids for specific nutrition items only, and SNAP, available to low-income families with people of all ages that can be used for almost any uncooked food item in the grocery store.
Accounts like Rudd's bring us a step closer to addressing the barriers to quality food. She makes WIC more accessible for families and brings awareness to the benefits of using it. "WIC provides support both during postpartum and for children up to 5 years, so as long as I'm able, I'm going to tap in and keep creating recipes," she says.
Registered dietitian nutritionist and owner of Crave with Carlie, a virtual nutrition private practice, Carlie Saint-Laurent Beaucejour says access to a healthy diet during pregnancy and after delivery is essential for the health of mothers and the growth and development of newborn babies. During this crucial time, both need nutrients like protein, fats, carbohydrates, iron, and folate. Saint-Laurent Beaucejour says the risk for conditions like asthma, obesity, and diabetes that surface later in life can be linked to the nutrients passed during pregnancy.
Unfortunately, not only are low-income families more likely to be surrounded by unhealthy food options, like fast food, but they often face health-related challenges during pregnancy. People who live in food deserts are 27 percent more likely to have a preterm birth. They also have higher rates of other life-threatening complications, like preeclampsia, gestational hypertension, gestational diabetes, and low birth weight. Studies suggest those who use WIC have better infant birth weights rates, with fewer low birth weights and lower weight gain during pregnancy. There's also a little evidence it decreases the chance for ADHD.
Parents who lack access to quality food experience a mix of short- and long-term consequences. "When parents don't have access to quality of food, this can lead to a collision of short-term and long-term consequences like stress, depression, poor sleep, lack of energy, nutrient deficiencies, and pregnancy related conditions like preeclampsia and gestational diabetes," says Saint-Laurent Beaucejour. She also says families who are told to improve their diet without consideration to their financial status or their access to grocery stores impacts the trust they have for their care team and adds additional stress.
Rudd says she is grateful for the overwhelming positive feedback, but she's also received negative messages. Despite the fact that WIC serves about 6.2 million participants per month and half of all infants born in 2020 receive WIC support, stigma around public assistance continues. "I've also received a lot of negative responses from people who've called me a 'welfare queen' and worse," she says.
Still, Rudd's not letting those comments stop her. "Utilization of government assistance programs is incredibly stigmatized, and I pray that others can use the WIC vlog series to feel empowered and in community enough to take care of their families by any means necessary."
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