This article was published in the Lenoir News-Topic.

Despite an unemployment rate hovering around 11 percent and a poverty rate at 18.4 percent, a resource that could help struggling single-parent families is underutilized in Caldwell County.

Caldwell County WIC, an organization that provides federally-funded nutrition assistance for single mothers and their children, only serves 86 percent of its assigned caseload and has seen steady declines since 2009.

“We’ve been doing all sorts of outreach to try and promote our services and what we offer to the community and just nothing seems to make an impact,” Caldwell County WIC Director Danae Olson said. “I’m not sure what else to do.”WIC offers food benefits, formula vouchers, nutrition education and breastfeeding support for mothers and their children, who qualify based on income guidelines.

In Caldwell, participation peaked in 2009, and has declined steadily ever since.

Today, Caldwell County WIC serves just 77 percent of the pregnant women, 75 percent of the postpartum women and 78 percent of the children it served in 2009.

Numbers are lower than they have been in more than a decade, Olson said.

She’s afraid that might eventually lead to cuts in the program that could hurt even the mothers who do take advantage of services.

WIC funding is regulated at the federal level and allocated at the state level. The amount of money a county gets is determined by its caseload.

When a county isn’t serving its assigned caseload, the state generally tries to get eligible individuals enrolled before making cuts, said Julie Henry, acting director of public affairs for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

But Olson is still worried about the impact caseload-based reductions in funding might have in Caldwell County.

“We might end up having a waiting list,” she said. “There might be somebody that could benefit from the services that, at that point, may not receive them.”

WIC has seen problems with underutilization in other counties across the country – although programs in North Carolina are currently utilized at an average of 97 percent.

Programs fail to meet their assigned caseloads for a number of reasons. Transition times in a community are a big one, Henry said.

Olson agreed that population shifts in Caldwell County – citizens who are getting older, or having fewer children, or moving in and out frequently – could contribute to underutilization.

In general, 50 percent of pregnant and nursing mothers qualify for WIC assistance – and that rate is higher in Caldwell County, Olson said.

To find out if you qualify, call 828-426-8407 to make an appointment or visit to use the WIC prescreening tool.