These are my children. They pretty much make my world go 'round. They're lively, mischievous, energetic, spunky, loving, funny and just like in the picture, they sometimes make time go in a blur. The oldest has no allergies. He's as healthy and normal as can be, other than being short for his age and underweight. I blame the Elliott side. All that energy makes it hard to keep any weight on to grow with! The other two both have food allergies. It's not fun, but it's something we have to work with and we do day to day. We learn together about alternatives and substitutes. We try out new things together. Each day is a new adventure and we work to make each adventure not only fun, but safe.
I debated about whether or not I wanted to write this blog post. It's an issue that for some is sensitive, perhaps even embarrassing. Many have very strong opinions about it one way or the other. For the most part, I wanted to just leave the whole thing alone. But I think something needs to be said, and it may as well be me.
Friday on my personal Facebook page, I posted that I was writing to the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) about the lack of options for children with food allergies within the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program. I asked for luck which most people offered. A comment was made, which I have not seen because it was deleted before I had a chance to read it, which caused some contention in the comment section. I can only guess based on other comments made that it was negative toward government assistance programs. Honestly, I don't care too much what was said. The person who made the comment is still very much my friend and I am not going to allow whatever comment was made (which I haven't even seen) affect that friendship.
However, I do think the topic needs to be addressed. Originally I had meant this post just to be an update for those who want to know what happens with my email to the USDA. Instead, this will be the start of my journey and give my perspective on government assistance programs. This is not meant to be a debate. This is not meant to give or take offense at anyone having a differing opinion. Being an adult means realizing that not everyone will agree with you and that's okay. Being an adult also means standing up for the things you believe in and in a friendly, polite way, expressing those things.
Generally speaking, I am conservative. Not in every matter, but for the most part that's where I fit in politically. I value hard work and my independence. I strive to be self-sufficient as much as possible and to give back when and where I can. I have strong moral values and unwaivering faith in my God. (This is not to say that those who are more liberal do not value these things, it's just making note that typically these are considered conservative traits.)
Now government assistance programs is an area I tend to be a little more liberal-leaning. I believe we do need to offer help to those in need. However, I would also be the first person to say that our current programs are in much need of rehaul. Welfare programs such as food stamps often create dependence on their programs and discourage fiscal responsibility. But not all of the programs do and there is a lot of good that can come from these programs.
One such program is WIC. For those unfamiliar with it, let me give you a little glimpse. WIC does not replace a family's food budget the way food stamps does. Rather, it supplements the existing budget with checks that can be used only for specific products. Fresh fruits and vegetables, milk, whole grain bread and cereal, etc. However, the other major difference is in presentation. Not only do you have your initial qualification appointment, but you then have appointments to pick up quarterly checks. Every six months (sometimes quarterly dependent on the needs of your child(ren)) you attend a full appointment to discuss healthy eating habits. The WIC officer will share recipes, tips for healthy snacking, etc. Because my children are small, I also had an appointment with a licensed dietician to go over specific needs my children have. The program is as much about educating people as it is about helping them get the food they need. For working parents and single parents, this education can be just as beneficial as the extra stretch to their food budget.
My husband is a teacher. I am a stay-at-home-mom and self-published, relatively unknown author. Our budget is tight and with two children with food allergies, the assistance WIC provides helps us make ends meet. I have the time (and patience) to research substitutions and alternatives to the standard staples my children can't have. But many parents, especially those who are single, don't have that luxury. It has not been an easy process for me even with having the time to do it. Many family favorites I grew up with have been abandoned as I have been unable to find substitutes that will work in the recipes. But for each recipe I lose, I've slowly been able to find new recipes and new favorites. Some of them have been from suggestions at my WIC appointments. Even though I already had a very good grasp on healthy choices and cooking, WIC has helped me learn what I can do for my children.
The reason I wrote to the USDA is because the checks are very, very specific on what you can and cannot get. Honestly, that's a feature I like about WIC. I can't just get whatever looks good. I have to get what is listed on the check. The problem is the fact that for children with food allergies there are few, if any, substitutes. My daughter who is allergic to dairy can have soy milk. It's worked out well for her. Unfortunately, my youngest son is allergic to both dairy and soy. There are no alternatives for him, despite having my doctor fill out the form for him to be switched to almond milk. It took a few phone calls to discover that even at the state level that could not be changed. It was a USDA regulation because almond milk is not nutritionally similar enough to dairy milk. I understand that and believe me, I'm realizing more and more with working around my children's allergies that it takes a lot of creativity to get all the nutrients a child with food allergies needs. This is where I think the WIC program could benefit from some changes.
Studies are showing a rise in food allergies and, no matter what the reason for that is, it means there are going to be more children who need alternatives. I very highly doubt that my son is the only one who has both allergies. In fact I know he isn't because my WIC officer, when I expressed my frustration at her not being able to change the milk for me, confided (without naming anyone) that there were other parents running into the same problem. Dairy milk is expensive enough for most people at often $3 a gallon. But the next time you're at the store, take a look at the dairy alternatives. Depending on brand and whether or not it has an "organic" label, a gallon can be anywhere from $7 to $10, sometimes more. Believe me, it adds up quickly and can really hurt a family's food budget. Not only are the alternatives expensive, but often because the alternatives do lack nutrients found in regular dairy, families have to be creative in making sure those nutrients make their way into other aspects of the child's diet. It takes a lot of time and research to find good solutions and I'm still learning. I would love to see the WIC program have more education available for families dealing with food allergies. I want to be able to get the foods my son can have.
So that's what I've written to the USDA about. Right now I'm still waiting for a response and will post an update when I do receive one. Thank you to all of you who have offered support. I know this is a topic that for many elicit strong feelings. If you feel inclined to leave a comment, whether or not you agree with me, please keep them polite. There's no reason to be antagonistic. And again, thank you for your support and love. I surely appreciate it.
Jessica L. Elliott
Author, artist, mom and super-genius