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BRADENTON — As the economy weakens, hundreds of pregnant women and mothers are flooding Manatee County Health Department each day seeking help to feed their babies and young children.

“We are seeing between 300 and 350 mothers and children,” said Daniel Solomon, interim director of the local Women, Infant and Children or WIC nutrition program funded through the federal government. “Since February of 2008, we have seen an average increase of 400 people a month.”

WIC demographics are changing too, Solomon said. “We are seeing a lot more families who used to be middle class and white-collar workers but who have now lost their jobs or had their income cut.”

WIC is a free nutrition program for women who are pregnant or breast feeding or who have recently been pregnant, as well as infants and children younger than age 5. Services provided include healthy foods, nutrition education and counseling, breast feeding support and referrals to health care, immunizations, and community services.

Maria Luvino, mother of five, depends upon the supplemental food program to help feed her youngest daughter, Jasmine, who is 2. The Luvinos qualify because their income does not exceed 100 percent of the federal poverty level.

WIC has been godsend for her family, Luvino said.

“WIC means a lot to me,” she said. “To get the milk, juice, cereal and beans really helps. A gallon of milk is so expenget the milk, juice, cereal and beans really helps. A gallon of milk is so expensive nowadays.”

As Luvino waited her turn to see her WIC counselor, Jasmine played with the bandage on her little finger.

“What’s that?” her older sister Laura asked, pointing to Jasmine’s finger. “Why does she have a Band-Aid?”

Luvino patiently unexplained that Jasmine had her finger pricked for a blood test that would help WIC counselors determine her state of health.

Like other WIC mothers, Luvino receives vouchers that she can exchange the same as cash for milk, cereal, juice, dry beans or peas, cheese, eggs and peanut butter at approved stores, which Solomon said include most of the major supermarket chains like Publix, Winn-Dixie, Albertson’s and Wal-Mart.

For Luvino, WIC support has meant the family’s limited food budget can be stretched to help feed the rest of the family.

Women who breast-feed can purchase carrots — fresh, frozen or canned — as well as canned light tuna if they don’t receive infant formula from WIC.

“What many WIC moms don’t realize is their vouchers are good for grocery specials, like buy-one-get-one free deals on cereal,” Solomon said. “We teach them how to read food labels so they make good choices.”

Health counseling is a big part of the local WIC program. The waiting room’s walls have signs in both English and Spanish that say breast-feeding is OK anywhere in the building.

For women who do not breast-feed, WIC provides formula as well as training in how to achieve the right mixture.

“It’s all about getting babies and children started on the right track,” Solomon said.

“Each client must see a nutritionist or dietitian to qualify for assistance. We want to make sure the family is eating right.”

But there are rules.

WIC participants may never receive cash refunds, change, rain checks, or IOUs in exchange for vouchers. Baby formula purchased with vouchers can never be exchanged for another brand or cash at the store. WIC participants who attempt to sell WIC food can be taken off of the program.

Federal funding for WIC flows down to the state, which then disperses the money to county health departments. Manatee County Health Department receives about $1.5 million, Solomon said.

The investment is paying off, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Services. Research shows WIC participation decreases the incidence of low birth weight by 3.3 percent and decreases pre-term births by 3.5 percent, the report says.

The good news, Solomon said, is a recent report that shows 98 percent of Manatee County families eligible for WIC are now enrolled in the program.

Prospective applicants must make an appointment for a certification interview from 7:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Friday at Manatee County Health Department, 410 Sixth Ave. E., Bradenton. Call 748-0747, ext. 1292.