A panel of lawmakers and state officials on Thursday held an “emergency” meeting to authorize a temporary expansion of federal benefits to help low-income women and their families purchase additional fruit and vegetables, just in time for a June deadline that had slipped beyond the notice of the Legislature as it works to spend a billion-plus dollars in COVID-19 aid from the U.S. government.
Under the expanded program, Montanans who receive Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children — or WIC — benefits will see an increase in their payments for produce up to $35 a month for a four-month period ending September 30. States that opted-in to the expanded benefit, a group that includes Montana, needed to take advantage of the opportunity by the beginning of the four-month term in June.
The monthly cash-value voucher for fruit and vegetable purchases is in normal times $9 per child and $11 for women who are pregnant, postpartum or breastfeeding. In other words, the boost, funded by the American Rescue Plan Act, can more than triple the fruit and vegetable voucher for some who qualify. Montana’s WIC participation hovers around 14,000 people; around 10,000 could see the expanded fruit-and-vegetable payments, the state Department of Public Health and Human Services said.
The annual income threshold for a family of four to receive WIC benefits is $48,470.
“It’s really important,” said Rep. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, who sits on the Health Advisory Commission that approved the payments Thursday. “I think of pregnant women, infants and children being able to put more fresh fruit and vegetables into their bellies, and that’s a really good thing for this summer.”
The commission is one of four steering groups that were formed under House Bill 632, legislation implementing and authorizing payments under the American Rescue Plan Act.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture notified states of the ability to take advantage of the expanded funds in March. But the Legislature didn’t specifically authorize the benefit during the session, and the ARPA advisory commissions aren’t slated to meet regularly until June 3, by which point it would be too late to take advantage of the opportunity.
The Health Advisory Commission wasn’t scheduled to meet Thursday until the Montana Food Bank Network, the Montana Association of WIC Agencies and Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies notified lawmakers on the committee, the governor and DPHHS director Adam Meier that the state still had to authorize the benefits soon or else become the only state to opt-in to the expansion and not take advantage of it.
The Food Bank Network learned last week that local WIC clinics were holding off on issuing June benefits as they didn’t know how much of the fruit and vegetable payments to allocate, said Lorianne Burhop, the network’s policy director. Administering payments can be a time-intensive process as clinics distribute individual benefit packages to WIC-eligible families in the region, so the clinics needed guidance soon in order to begin sending out payments.
“Nearly one in six kids in this state live in a food insecure home,” Burhop said. “WIC reaches kids at their most critical points in development.”
That outreach effort began last week, meaning that the meeting to approve the funds came together in a handful of days.
“We never intended to hold up the process — we wanted to make sure that pregnant women, children and infants get fresh vegetables and fruit,” Caferro said. “The way the human services ARPA funding works, there’s so many wonderful opportunities to strengthen families and so we missed this.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated on May 24, 2021 to clarify that both lawmakers and administration officials serve on the Health Advisory Commission.
As a direct service provider, you’ve most likely been in a situation where a client sat across the table from you with a complex problem, looking to you for help, and you didn’t have what they needed. It is a terrible feeling, especially when it’s a new mother and she is on the verge of crisis.
We know it’s tempting to throw a hand out together out of desperation and urgency but, unfortunately, if this process goes awry, it can be damaging and dangerous. Referring an individual suffering from a PMAD to someone who doesn’t understand the nature of these conditions can have disastrous and devastating effects. Think added shame, blame, isolation, and worse. These are complex mental health disorders that require specialized care.
In response, Healthy Mothers Healthy Babies created a framework that communities in Montana can use to create a local resource guide that truly feels like a tool. One that providers and patients/clients can consult with confidence. One that allows the referral process to feel more like the passing of a torch than a shot in the dark.
We are currently piloting this project in Helena. The Maternal Mental Health Task Force of the Early Childhood Coalition will publish the guide and update it annually.
In addition to listing providers and clinicians with specific PMAD training & expertise, the guide will also list:
- Support groups led by clinicians and trained peer advocates
- Local prevention, wellness and support services
- National and local warm-lines and support-lines
We are seeking more providers to apply who have experience working with people in the perinatal period!
In order to be included in the guide, which will be in print and online, eligibility requirements are:
- A minimum of 10 CE hours on the topic of Perinatal Mental Health for healthcare and mental health professionals or 5 CE hours for non-healthcare professionals
- Minimum of one year in practice with perinatal clients
- Up-to-date and licensed in your field
- Additional vetting criteria is available if you don’t meet these requirements, please just ask
If you or the providers you represent meet the qualifications to be listed in this guide, please fill out the below application so that our Resource Guide Committee can review your information. Questions can be asked via email at email@example.com or by phone at 406-763-6811.
Written by Emily Clewis on behalf of Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies and the Maternal Mental Health Task Force of Helena.
In honor of May as Maternal Mental Health Month, Helena’s Maternal Mental Health Task Force, in partnership with Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies, would like to highlight ways that communities can support moms during the postpartum period.
While holding a new baby is exciting, it’s the birthing person that truly needs to be held, loved and supported in this golden but vulnerable time. Their body and mind will have run the ultimate marathon and they will need support. If the mother is well supported during this time, she can care well for the new baby. If you’re visiting in the first weeks, remember you are there to support the parents. Remind them they don’t need to host you and that you are there to help.
Always ask parents before coming to visit. In the blur of the first few weeks, flexibility is best! Remember: new babies have no sense of night or day, so parents may be sleeping with their little ones at noon after being up all night. If they say they are welcoming visitors, when you get to their house, wash your hands well and keep your face away from the baby. Babies are vulnerable to common illnesses. Offer to bring by healthy snacks or a ready to heat nutritious meal! New moms, especially those breastfeeding, will be hungry often as it takes much energy to care for newborns. If they feed the baby while you’re there, help her put her feet up and offer to get her water or a snack (then, maybe do the dishes).
Look around the home for things that need to be done; laundry, dishes, taking out the trash, etc. If there are older children in the house offer to watch a movie with them or take them on a walk. Always ask the parents if it’s okay to hold the baby. If they say yes, encourage them to take a shower or quick nap while you’re there. Ask new parents what they need, they will likely tell you! Finally, don’t overstay. Parents during this time are heavily exhausted, and even well-meaning company can make parents feel the need to entertain. An hour or so is plenty in those first few weeks, unless the parents ask otherwise!
Keep in mind that the No. 1 complication of birth is postpartum depression. One in six Montana mothers will experience it. Knowing the signs and symptoms of mood disorders in the postpartum period increases the likelihood of treatment. Some things to look for include sadness, guilt, inability to make decisions, poor self-care, low self-esteem, mood swings, appetite changes, excessive crying and more. While only a health care provider can offer treatment, if you, or the new mom in your life, is experiencing any of these symptoms, encourage them that it’s not their fault they feel that way, and that help is available through their OB or primary care physician.
Finally, the COVID-19 pandemic may have made the experience of having a little one more nerve racking. Families may have varying feelings of comfortability having multiple visitors during this vulnerable period of recovery. Ask parents what precautions they may be taking and if they are up for visitors! If they aren’t, you can still support them by dropping off easy-to-heat meals, or sending a gift card to DoorDash, Grubhub or their favorite restaurant.
Families in the postpartum, or fourth trimester, thrive with healthy community support. Additionally, moms are less likely to suffer from perinatal depression and babies have better health outcomes. Together, we can ensure that parents have a positive postpartum experience!