Alaska staff teams up with the U.S. mail to reach rural participants

Alaska staff teams up with the U.S. mail to reach rural participants – WIC program

Dee Amaden

Alaska Staff Team Up With The U.S. Mail To Reach Rural Participants

Emily Slana lives on the Arctic Circle, 150 miles from the closest store stocking WIC foods. But she and her children still benefit from the nutritious food provided through the WIC program.

Emily is one of more than 350 women and young children who receive WIC foods and nutrition information the same way many rural Alaskans do much of their shopping–through the U.S. mail. Once a month, Emily picks up her WIC package at the Fort Yukon post office, 2 miles from her home.

A response to special needs

For several years, the state agency that runs Alaska’s WIC program was unable to reach those living in remote areas. Mary Riggen-Ver, state WIC co-ordinator, says that while the program was working well in cities and in rural areas with well-stocked stores, stores in remote areas found it difficult, and expensive, to maintain supplies of the specified WIC foods.

In April 1985, the state WIC office began using parcel post–commonly used in Alaska–to deliver food and nutrition education materials to WIC participants in areas with few or no stores. Today, nearly 10 percent of Alaska’s 4,000 WIC participants are reached this way.

Enrolling eligible mothers and children is a cooperative process. Health care providers visiting rural areas make health and nutrition assessments and provide potential participants with applications. WIC staff in Juneau review the applications and health information and enroll applicants who qualify.

Distributors in Anchorage and Juneau mail the food packages. State staff order participants’ packages monthly and provide the distributors with nutrition education and food preparation information to send with the WIC foods.

Becky Carrillo, who oversees the ordering and shipping, varies the kinds of juices and cereals, and alternates dried beans with peanut butter. To keep costs down and avoid damage to food, the state substitutes powdered eggs and dried or evaporated milk for the conventional fresh foods.

Mailing is an economical choice

Food package costs for those in rural areas not on the mail delivery program are high, making the mail-out system an economical choice for Alaska’s WIC program. Costs for the parcel post package, including postage, range from $29 to $49 for child and adult packages, and from $43 to $53 for infant packages. Purchasing the same foods in rural stores can run as much as $20 more per person.

The concept for the mail-order system, called the “Alternate Food Delivery System,’ was first tried by the local WIC office in Nome to serve clients in nearby villages, using an Anchorage vendor more than 500 miles away.

State staff learned of the parcel post option during a regular monitoring visit to Nome in 1984. They were surprised that stores would be willing to ship the relatively small quantities monthly to WIC participants, and realized an arrangement similar to the one in Nome would give them new opportunities to reach people in remote areas throughout the state.

“We had wanted to serve more rural people but had no way of reaching many potential clients,’ says Riggen-Ver.

Although the program is now serving more people, the cost of administering it has not increased. Federal funding compensates for the increased case-load, and because the administrative work is centralized in the state office in Juneau, there are no travel costs.

Questionnaires sent every other month

The state staff make special efforts to make sure the alternate food delivery system is working smoothly.

Participants receive a questionnaire every other month with their food packages, enabling the staff to check that the correct items were sent and arrived in good condition. The questionnaires sometimes come back with information on clients’ preferences, which the staff try to honor.

State managers are also careful to tailor nutrition information materials to participants’ needs and their familiarity with the foods.

Jeanne Jones, who prepares most of the nutrition education materials sent to rural participants, says, “Most Native Alaskans are unfamiliar with dried beans, so we include recipes and nutrition education materials that discuss the preparation and nutritional value of the beans. With the first food package shipment, we also include information on using dried eggs.’

Mary Riggen-Ver and her staff are pleased with the success of the new system.

“We had to come up with a unique solution to solve the special problems of administering a program in a state where 40 percent of the population is in rural areas, spread over an area equal to one-fifth of the whole U.S.,’ says Riggen-Ver.

“Although every system has some problems, we feel this solution has gone a long way in reaching people in the rural areas who need the supplemental food help WIC offers.’

For more information, contact:

Mary Riggen-Ver Alaska WIC Program Coordinator Division of Public Health Department of Health and Social Services P.O. Box H-06B Juneau, Alaska 99811-9976 Telephone: (907) 465-3103

Photo: Becky Carrillo (below) arranges for WIC foods to be sent to remote areas. The packages go by freight plane to large towns, then by twin engine planes to small villages.

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