Underwood visit to Will County highlights program for mothers and children

WIC funding at stake, congresswoman says

Pat Krause, WIC Will County Health Department Program Manager, right, gives U.S. Representative Lauren Underwood (IL-14) a tour of the Will County WIC Clinic on Wednesday, Feb. 21st 2024 in Joliet.

Joined by state and federal officials Feb. 21, U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood, D-Naperville, toured a local clinic that provides nutritional services to women and infants, drawing attention to a program in its 50th year that faces funding shortfalls with the threat of a government shutdown.

The visit was to the main Will County offices for the federal Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, which is known by its acronym WIC.

The program serves about 8,700 families in Will County, some of whom Underwood said could be affected by the latest government shutdown date that could come next week. The next possible shutdown date is March 1.

“We’re in a really challenging moment in Washington to support this program and the funding needed to support families across the country,” Underwood said.

U.S. Representative Lauren Underwood (IL-14) has a laugh with a WIC member at the Will County Health Department facility on Wednesday, Feb. 21st 2024 in Joliet.

WIC has received bipartisan support for most of its existence, Underwood said.

But even a continuing resolution that would avert a shutdown and keep the federal government running at currently funded levels could affect 2 million people enrolled in the program, she said.

Advocates have said the program needs more funding because of the rising cost of food and pay for staff.

In addition to providing advice on topics such as diet, nutrition and breastfeeding, WIC also provides financial assistance that can be used to buy food considered healthy for women and their young children.

Mothers with children up to the age of 5 can participate in the program.

WIC, in its 50th year, has come a long way since its origins.

Will County Health Department Executive Director Elizabeth Bilotta gave a brief history of the program before the tour started.

Elizabeth Bilotta, Will County Health Department Executive Director, shares a few work during U.S. Representative Lauren Underwood (IL-14) visit of the Will County WIC Clinic at the Will County Health Department facility on Wednesday, Feb. 21st 2024 in Joliet.

WIC in Will County now is run by a staff of 28 employees, who Bilotta said “are dedicated and resourceful. They treat our customers and patients excellently.”

Bilotta said WIC nationally started as a pilot program in 1972, with the first clinic opening in 1974. Will County first participated in WIC in 1980 with the hiring of a nutritionist to advise mothers on proper eating for themselves and their children.

The current staff includes nutritionists, dietitians, nurses, clerks and lactation consultants.

During her tour, Underwood spent some time talking with lactation consultant Alyssa Densberger, who discussed her work with mothers who have questions about breastfeeding.

“A lot of the people don’t know where to go after leaving the hospital,” Densberger told Underwood, noting that mothers get breastfeeding advice at the hospital but often have more questions.

Underwood said she was impressed by what she saw at the Will County WIC clinic, which is located in the Will County Health Department building in Joliet.

She commended the staff for their work “despite the dysfunction and uncertainty at the federal level.”

Those joining the tour included Stephanie Bess, WIC director for the state of Illinois.

Bess said about 30% of Illinois women eligible for the program actually participate, and the reasons why more mothers do not sign up are not clear.

Vista Suarez Fletcher, United States Department of Agriculture Regional Administrator, attends the facility tour for U.S. Representative Lauren Underwood (IL-14) at the Will County WIC Clinic on Wednesday, Feb. 21st 2024 in Joliet.

But Bess said participation is increasing, which partially accounts for why the cost of the program is up this year in Illinois from $13.8 million a month last year to $15.9 million.

“Food costs are up partly because we’re getting more people participating but also because food costs are going up,” Bess said.

Also in Joliet for the tour Wednesday was Vista Fletcher, regional administrator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the program.

“Today was a learning opportunity for all of us,” Fletcher said.

Tour participants also met with mothers and staff involved in the WIC program in Will County to hear about their experiences.

Bob Okon

Bob Okon

Bob Okon covers local government for The Herald-News