Guest Writer: Cathy May

Oct 18, 2023 | Blog

Traveling Arkansas with WIC

By Cathy May, Director of SNAP Programs & WIC Outreach

On the last day of July and the first few of steamy August, I was fortunate to tag along with Arkansas Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Branch Chief Mitzi Fritschen as she squired National WIC Association visitors around our beautiful state.

The National WIC Association (NWA) from Washington, D.C, visitors comprised Director of Education and Membership Engagement Emily Gilcher, Senior Recruitment & Retention Campaign Manager Whitney Dawn Carlson, and Senior Communications Associate Maureen Lytle.

Emily, Whitney, and Maureen flew into Oklahoma to attend the 2023 National Indian and Native American WIC Coalition Conference in Oklahoma City, July 25-27. From there, they stopped to visit various locations supporting the WIC program. On Monday, July 31, they drove into Northwest Arkansas. Mitzi and I met them in Springdale and began the Arkansas leg of the tour.

Our first stop was the Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese (ACOM), where we visited with Stephanie Takamaru and CEO Melisa Laelan. We were excited to hear about the support they give to the Marshallese community. Arkansas has the largest population of Marshallese in the U.S. ACOM is a vital resource for Pacific Islanders in Arkansas. The organization assists members in navigating the healthcare system, bridges communication barriers, and is an all-around “go-to” for the Marshallese.

From Springdale, we headed to Fayetteville, where we toured a WIC-only clinic, where clients are all WIC recipients and the medical staff focuses on their needs specific to WIC assessments, infant care, and maternal. I was so excited to see the babies, toddlers, and beautiful expectant women.

We called it a day after all the traveling and talking. However, instead of going our separate ways for the evening, we chose to go to dinner and continue our discussions about WIC, outreach, and some lively personal stories to get to know each other better. Our conversations had no lulls and much laughter was shared during the meal.

Day two began bright and early. We gathered downtown at the square in Fayetteville to see the wonderful Fayetteville Farmers’ Market. So many beautiful fresh fruits, vegetables, and fragrant flowers were a treat for our eyes. (We all left with purchases!) The focus of the stop was to meet the vendors that support the WIC program and SNAP. Meaning a WIC or SNAP recipient can visit the market to use their benefits to purchase from the bountiful array of fresh produce.

On to another WIC-only clinic in Springdale for a quick tour, and while there, our state Branch Chief, Mitzi, presented staff members with a recognition certificate as she had at the previous clinic. The staff are on the front lines, and their voices are so important for the head office to hear about barriers, successes, and challenges. You can only enact change with this type of feedback and insight.

The next stop was visiting one of our state’s six Feeding America food banks, Northwest Arkansas Food Bank, in Springdale, Arkansas. Director of Programs Sabrina Thiede led the meeting, and some of her fantastic staff joined us. We had a very informative discussion regarding WIC, outreach, and how to better advocate for our community members.

At the end of day two, we were all enduring the heat of a summer in Arkansas, and Mitzi and I were ever so grateful for the arctic air blasting from my car vents. We waved goodbye to Emily, Maureen, and Whitney, knowing we would see them the next day. Tomorrow would bring another full day of activities and meetings once we traveled to Little Rock and regrouped.

The next morning in Little Rock, a flat tire on the rental car caused a brief delay for the D.C. folks. Mitzi picked two of them up and we planned to meet the other ASAP. We visited the campus of UALR to see a WIC vendor at the Strengthening Arkansas Families Conference.

Just a hop, skip and jump away, we traveled to Mitzi’s office and met with the WIC Program Outreach Team. To say our discussion was lively would be an understatement. We learned so much from the team and heard stories from the “front lines.” One of the conversations I loved was about adding culturally appropriate food to the food list for WIC families. It is so important that we are aware and inclusive of all our community members and their familiar foods. I love meeting like-minded individuals, including having a sense of humor. We had a few moments where we had to wipe tears from our eyes and clutch our stomachs as they hurt from all the laughter. My kind of people!

Nearing the end of the day, our next stop was to visit the Southwest Health Unit, then to another Feeding America food bank, Arkansas Foodbank. Accompanying us was CPO Melissa Cargile and Community & Agency Director Ashley King. We took a tour of the facility, learned how the food bank operates and the complexities involved. Not going to lie–standing in the giant refrigerator was a highlight as it was 104 degrees outside!

Our last day’s visit was to tour the Arkansas Minority Health Commission Mobile Unit with Director Kenya Eddings. It is an incredible unit that offers many ways to help others! They can provide various medical screenings, vaccinations, and other services. Their goal is to be “a screening center on wheels. The MHU provides an avenue to double the Arkansas Minority Health Commission’s preventive screenings by reaching people where they are in the state.” We were so grateful that Kenya took time from her packed schedule to allow us to see the fruition of so much hard work.

That said, we were inside the unit sitting in a parking lot. It was not running because we would only be there for a few minutes (meaning no air). We all crowded in, ‘ooed,’ and ‘ahhed’ over all the fantastic features the unit offers. Emily said, “This has to be one of the hottest meetings I’ve ever been in,” we all laughed and agreed as sweat rolled down us. It felt cool when we stepped out of the unit and into the 104°+ air.

In conclusion, I was truly honored to visit with many unique and caring people. Mitzi and I are eager to plan a trip to D.C. to visit the NWA office and see our new friends, Emily, Whitney, and Maureen.