Sally Zubairu-Cofield: Reinvigorating & Reimagining the Pennsylvania WIC Program

Sally Zubairu-Cofield was 19, pregnant and scared when she walked into a WIC Program office in southern Prince George's County, Maryland. Confronted with poor customer service and the stigma of teen pregnancy, she left that day embarrassed and without the resources she needed as a teen mother-to-be.

She didn't know it then, but that experience would set her on a path, determined to reinvigorate and reimagine the process and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Program itself, a nutritional lifeline for more than 100,000 Pennsylvanians.

As a young mother, Zubairu-Cofield worked in a salon shampooing clients on weekends while she went to nursing school. She graduated on a Saturday and started to work at the largest WIC agency in Maryland the next week, rising through its ranks during years of service before finally accepting a position as Pennsylvania State WIC Program director this March.

"The way I was treated at WIC made a difference in my entire being. I made it my mission that no one would ever feel like that again. I walked through these doors determined to immediately make a difference. I saw people who looked like me, and I knew that is where I needed to be and where I was supposed to be," Zubairu-Cofield said.

The WIC Program provides federal grants to states for supplemental foods, healthcare referrals, and nutrition education for low-income pregnancy, breastfeeding, and non-breastfeeding postpartum birthing people and to infants and children up to age five who are found to be a nutritional risk.

The Jewish Healthcare Foundation and Women's Health Activist Movement Global (WHAMglobal) published a research paper in 2019: Reinvigorating and Reimagining The Pennsylvania WIC Program, which found that only 50 percent of eligible Pennsylvanians receive assistance through WIC. The paper also identified states with high WIC participation rates and explored possible reasons for their success. Some of those included: Increasing the ease of enrollment and accessibility to the program with walk-in, weekend and evening hours; the option to complete some of the required nutrition education online; making WIC clinics more inviting; and strengthening relationships with other service providers.

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the challenges that the WIC program faces as a short-term intervention program for a targeted, high-risk population. As clients received an influx of pandemic assistance, WIC participation decreased dramatically.

As WIC Program director, Zubairu-Cofield's goals for Pennsylvania mirror many of those found in the white paper, including increasing participation in the program, in turn increasing its funding allocation by: Increasing the racial and ethnic diversity of the providers at the clinic; renegotiate contracts to increase the number of vendors and accessibility; increase collaboration with other service providers; examine policies and procedures to streamline processes and increase the program's impact; and hold statewide staff training to ensure cohesion in the understanding and delivery of services across the state.

"My goal is for there to be no wrong door. My dream for Pennsylvania is that no matter what office you walk into, if you qualify for this program, you're getting the information you need right then and there. My dream is that someone can come in for a WIC appointment and leave with resources for how to stretch their food dollars, how to use their WIC and Food Stamp benefits collectively, how to access resources for energy assistance, how to get access to resources if you have children on the spectrum, resources for women and men in abusive relationships, for homelessness," Zaibaru-Cofield said.

JHF and WHAMglobal manage the PA WIC Stakeholders Collaborative, which aims to strengthen communication, coordination, and collaboration among WIC Program stakeholders and to provide a platform for sharing ideas and collectively working to improve the PA WIC Program. Zaibaru-Cofield recently joined JHF at its WHAM board meeting to share her experience and discuss future collaboration to continue to improve the WIC Program.

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