Imagine every child eligible for the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program receiving the early nutrition and literacy support necessary to succeed in school and in life. As a former WIC baby and program officer working on First 5 LA’s Little by Little investment, a school readiness program that operates out of 10 WIC sites in L.A. County, I don’t have to go far to know the profound impact these types of services can have on a person’s life.
Before I was even born, WIC –– a federal program developed to provide nutrition access to low-income pregnant, postpartum and breastfeeding women, infants and children until the age of five –– played a major role in my development. Through WIC, my parents received the nutritional support they needed to prepare for and raise their children. As a first generation high school graduate and daughter of refugees, I often reflect on this: “I grew up poor but was never hungry.” I say this to express the very real impact of social policies on my life.
Created in response to parents like my own, who voiced a need to support their children’s developmental progress while visiting WIC centers for nutritional information and support, Little by Little engages WIC participants in their children’s education by fostering early literacy for low-income families who may not have access to books and early literacy services.
I had the privilege of supporting Little by Little as a program officer when, in June, it reached the new milestone of 317,000 unique participants and over one million developmentally appropriate books handed out to parents to help them as they prepare their children for school.
As the aspiration of the program comes to fruition, the success of Little by Little in L.A. County, where it’s currently administered by Helena Health, is informing the implementation of programming in other counties and states. Currently, the George Kaiser Family Foundation funds all five WIC sites in Tulsa, Oklahoma. There, the program has been adapted to the Zomi population, an ethnic minority group from the highlands of South and Southeast Asia. Tulsa is home to one of the largest Zomi population in the United States.
Upon the news of the milestone being reached, I asked my mom what she thought of pairing early literacy and phiếu sữa, the Vietnamese term for WIC, which translates into “milk coupons.” Not to my surprise, she thought it was marvelous.
“Good food and books, like childhood, are precious,” she said in Vietnamese. You see, when my mom was growing up she loved reading. Yet, faced with poverty in a war-torn country, she had very little access to books. When my sister and I came along, she wanted us to have books too, but could not afford them. We loved the library and went often, but the books were borrowed. “Buying books is just too expensive!” she exclaimed. From the sale section to thrift stores, affordable books were hard to come by. When we did get books, they were, as she puts it, precious.
One of these few precious books from my childhood was The Berenstain Bears and Too Much TV, by Stan and Jan Berenstain. Not only did my mom often read this book to my sister and me, but she believed in the messaging behind it. She tried her best to reduce our television time so that we could play outside and, of course, read more. I told her that Little by Little provides support to parents around topics such as minimizing screen time. “I think we would have really enjoyed this program,” she reflected. “You used to love a bowl of cereal and milk with a good book!”
I still do, and imagine that with Little by Little’s recent milestone, as well as its continued success and expansion, I am certainly not alone in this fond ritual.