Faced with plastic fruits and empty junk-food boxes and asked to pick a snack, 15-month-old Emily Sutton did not hesitate. She chose the orange.
Sutton was one of four children participating Thursday in the Elmo Eats nutrition class at the Douglas County Health Department.
The course, offered by the Women, Infants and Children Nutrition Program, encourages kids to choose healthy snacks.
It is one of many services WIC offers low-income families with small children.
The 3,500 Douglas County residents who participate in WIC programs each month can get health screenings, take nutrition classes and receive vouchers to buy healthy food, such as whole-grain cereal and vegetables. Services are provided at several clinics around the county.
Thursday, a handful of kids aged 1 to 5 showed no hesitation sorting good snacks from bad. They grabbed nearly every brightly colored fruit and vegetable from a table full of snacks before even reaching for the boxes and cans.
WIC instructor Judy Cheek encouraged the kids to feed their healthy snacks to a hungry Elmo puppet before dropping them in a green basket labeled “any time foods.”
The boxed snacks were placed in a red basket of “sometimes foods.”
Cheek told the mothers attending the class that snack choices are important.
“Kids get a lot of their nutrition from snacks, don’t they? They eat about every two hours,” she said.
Program manager Dale Erickson said the purpose of the game is not to ban less healthy snacks, just to suggest they be eaten less frequently.
“Nothing is prohibited. That would be unrealistic,” Erickson said.
The moms attending Thursday said they weren’t surprised their kids went for the fruits and veggies first.
Emily’s mother, Angela Mahan, 35, of Roseburg said Emily and her sister, 3-year-old Sierra Sutton, do not really care for junk food.
“You could buy them McDonald’s and they don’t eat it,” Mahan said.
“We eat a lot of fruits in our house. My kids like a lot of fruit,” said Dakota Seal, 27, of Winston.
Kyrie Benwell 25, of Roseburg, said apples, bananas and pineapples are favorites with her son Troy, 2, though he also enjoys Goldfish crackers.
Cheek suggested trying the whole wheat version of the crackers.
Parents at Thursday’s class received an Elmo video about eating healthy and vouchers to purchase WIC-approved foods.
Erickson said WIC clients come into the program with a wide range of knowledge.
“We have learned many children really eat just a very poor diet, a lot of fast food, a lot of boxes and cans. We also have a lot of moms who are aware of the food they serve,” he said.
Erickson said for parents who want to make good choices for feeding their kids, one of the biggest issues is cost.
“It’s always a struggle to eat well. For many of these families, they simply wouldn’t have the money they need to buy healthy food without WIC,” Erickson said.
To qualify for the WIC program, a family must include a pregnant woman or a child younger than 5. Nearly three-quarters of Oregon families receiving WIC have at least one employed parent, but they are not earning high wages. To qualify for WIC, the family’s income must be at or below 185 percent of federal poverty guidelines. That’s about $28,000 a year for a family of two and $42,000 for a family of four.
“There are quite a number of families within Douglas County who are within those guidelines,” Erickson said.
The WIC program starts helping before they are born. Pregnant and nursing mothers qualify to receive benefits ranging from breast-feeding education to canned tuna.
Clients also receive health screenings and referrals to doctors. Erickson said those referrals are part of the reason WIC clients see their doctors more often and are more up-to-date on their immunization than other low-income residents.
Erickson said Douglas County WIC clients have the same hopes as anyone else.
“They want to be economically self-sufficient. They want to be able to feed their families, live in a nice home and have their children go to a good school. They want to live the American Dream,” he said.
“We’re hoping to help make it possible for them to feed their families economically while they pursue their other goals. It’s one more burden off their shoulders.”
• You can reach reporter Carisa Cegavske at 541-957-4213 or firstname.lastname@example.org.