PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – Food prices have increased more than 10% in the last year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Yet still, thousands of eligible households in the Portland metro area aren’t taking advantage of the free groceries they could receive through WIC. 

Tara Olson, the Washington County WIC program supervisor, said the program has seen a lot more participants joining lately because of the rising cost of groceries, but the Portland-area WIC program has the ability to serve 24,000 additional people. 

That’s twice the number of people Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties currently serve. 

“If somebody is on OHP, SNAP or TANF they would automatically qualify for WIC, and then we have income guidelines for those that aren’t participating in those programs,” Olson explained. 

She said Oregon Health Plan provides the county with information that shows her there are many more people eligible for WIC than are taking advantage of it. The records show birth data and Olson said there’s a gap between OHP recipients who recently had a baby and who are receiving WIC benefits. 

Olson said OHP tries to reach out to its families to let them know they’re eligible for WIC services if they’re pregnant, postpartum, or have a child under the age of five. 

Another challenge WIC faces is informing parents and guardians who aren’t female that they are eligible for the program. 

While the program is technically called “Women, Infants and Children,” as it has been for 50 years, it serves more than just women. Fathers, stepparents, grandparents and foster parents can also qualify, as long as they have a child under the age of 5 and meet the income requirements. 

“Take advantage of what’s being given to you. It’s really hard sometimes to ask for help, especially for men because you’re supposed to be the helpers not the helped,” said Jared, a father from Tigard whose family receives WIC support. “So, if you’re struggling and trying out there, use WIC because WIC is meant for you.” 

WIC families receive an eWIC card to use at the grocery store and can use it for approved products, many include staple items like fruits and vegetables, eggs, cheese, milk, canned goods, cereals, and whole-grain items. 

“Lots of different things that families can use to make healthy meals at home,” Olson said. 

Now, WIC participants can receive more fruits and vegetables than in previous years thanks to Congress’ decision to extend supplemental benefits, which started with funding from the American Rescue Plan. 

The standard monthly benefit amounts for WIC fruits and vegetables are $9 per child and $11 per adult. But these increased benefits allow $24 for every child who’s older than 13 months, $43 for participants who are pregnant and who are not breastfeeding, and $47 for participants who are breastfeeding. 

These extra benefits will remain in place through September and Olson hopes Congress will extend them again. 

Monica, a WIC recipient from Sherwood, said using WIC benefits has allowed her family to eat healthier. 

“Instead of eating out, we’re doing a lot of eating at home and there’s just a lot of great recipes that we’ve learned,” she said.  

During the summer months, another way WIC participants can purchase additional produce is by using their checks at local farmers markets. The farmers market program runs from June through November. 

“It’s a good time to get enrolled in WIC so that you can get those farmers market vouchers, and they can use them at farmers markets, at farm stands, and also at U-pick farms,” Olson said. “So. it’s a way to get the family out there and buy some fresh local produce.”

WIC also provides participants with nutrition education and support. This can help parents with things like introducing their babies to solid foods, and understanding what types of foods and how much children should be eating. 

Another lesser-known feature of WIC is that it offers a breastfeeding peer counseling program. Washington County’s counselor speaks both English and Spanish and can help coach parents through preparing to breastfeed or can help them if they’re having difficulties breastfeeding. 

Washington County WIC recently posted a video on YouTube explaining how it’s helping local families. For more information on the program, visit SignUpWIC.com to find a local office.