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Participation is down by an “alarming rate” compared to 2010 in at least one critical health program in the eight-county area that includes Custer, according to Eastern Idaho Public Health officials: the supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children.

WIC helps low-income families buy groceries and educates young mothers about proper nutrition. The problem is that few of those families know they qualify for the program. Participation in the program in the district that includes Custer, Lemhi, Bonneville, Clark, Fremont, Jefferson, Madison and Teton counties has declined by 27.8 percent since 2010 and dropped by nearly 6 percent in the past year, according to Eastern Idaho Public Health Director Geri Rackow in her year-end report. In 2010 there were 9,500 participants. That number decreased to 7,500 in 2017 and fewer than 7,000 in 2018, according to the report.

In Custer, 48 people enrolled in WIC and 40 participated, spending $24,950 in WIC food assistance dollars. That compares to 6,120 participants district-wide who spent a total of $3.5 million.

Rackow isn’t sure why word isn’t getting out, but in an attempt to bridge the gap, a new smartphone grocery shopping and educational app known as WICSmart came out last year. It allows WIC families to view Idaho’s WIC-approved food list, see locations of grocery stores and clinics and scan groceries to see if items are WIC-approved. By the end of 2020, Idaho will transition to electronic WIC cards. After that, the WIC shopper app will be the tool participants use to manage and view their benefits.

In 2019 Idaho will participate in a national WIC awareness campaign with multi-media advertising and educational marketing designed to get the word out and sign up more families.

Income levels to qualify for WIC are $22,459 a year for a family of one, $30,451 for two, $38,443 for three, $46,435 for four, $54,427 for five and $62,419 for a family of six. Other eligibility criteria including having a pregnant mother, breastfeeding a baby under age 1, recently given birth, or having infants or children under age five.

Rackow presented her 2018 report to the Custer County commissioners last month. Custer contributed $31,615 to Eastern Idaho Public Health’s budget for the fiscal year that ran from July 1, 2017, to June 30, 2018. The district gets $1.1 million of its revenue from the eight counties it covers and $1.2 million from Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.

Rackow highlighted changes to WIC and a new Parents as Teachers program, a home-visitation program for at-risk families in which a child development specialist visits a family once or twice a month to coach parents through pregnancy and child early years “to create a safe and healthy home environment.” Last year five Custer County families were involved in the program.

“Amy (Shaw, the public health nurse in Challis) is really going gangbusters” on home visits, Rackow said.

Additional funding for 2019 will allow expansion to 25 additional families with children up to age 3. The additional funds were allocated as one-time only, and home visitation advocates are working to secure long-term funding for the future.

Children receive free health screenings for vision, hearing and important developmental milestones. Most of the families served have two or more at-risk factors, including low incomes, low birth weights, teenage parents, undereducated parents, parents with mental illness or a history of substance abuse, domestic violence or child abuse and neglect, and a parent in prison.

Custer County Commission Chairman Wayne Butts represents the county on the Eastern Idaho Public Health board of directors. “I think being part of this group has huge benefits,” said Butts, with programs to help low-income families with health issues that otherwise would not be addressed.

While WIC participation is down, Custer has a higher percentage of its population getting immunized than some more urban counties, Butts said.

Custer administered 582 vaccinations to children and 735 to adults. The total of 1,317 was small compared with the 22,851 immunizations across the district, but this sparsely populated rural county has a higher percentage of its population immunized than most, Butts said.

Youth access to electronic nicotine delivery devices remains an unmet health challenge, Rackow wrote. Other areas that need more focus include the opioid epidemic, lack of comprehensive health insurance for many people and social media influence on negative health behaviors, she said.

The Eastern Idaho Public Health office in Challis is at 610 Clinic Road. It’s open Mondays through Wednesdays from 8 a.m. to noon and 1 to 5 p.m. and Thursdays from 8 a.m. to noon. The Mackay office, at 301 Cedar, is open the first Tuesday of each month.

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