May 21, 2014

Local Health Program Gets a Reprieve After Outreach Effort

The Mercer County Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Program’s announcement that it would close its Princeton office as of May 16 was a wake-up call of sorts for members of the town’s government and municipal staff. The office, which is sponsored by the Children’s Home Society of New Jersey, provides checks for food, nutrition education, and breastfeeding support to those who qualify, on the third Friday of every month at Witherspoon Hall.

Bob Hary, the town’s interim health officer until the appointment of Jeffrey Grosser last March, had been meeting with the Children’s Home Society because of a decrease in the number of clients from about 600 a few years ago to a more recent number of about 200. “The question was whether there was still a need,” said Elisa Neira, Princeton’s Human Services Director. “Our belief was that there is. But I don’t know how much promotion the program had been getting in recent years. With consolidation and other changes, it kind of fell through the cracks.”

Mr. Hary was able to negotiate a reprieve for the program, and Ms. Neira and Mr. Grosser have come up with a revised plan to keep it alive and make residents aware that it exists. “They sent out over 1,000 flyers,” said Princeton Councilwoman Heather Howard, who is the governing body’s liaison to the Board of Health and the Human Services Commission, last week. “Health department inspectors were handing the flyers out at restaurants to employees, at the Y, at nursery schools, and other places. The good news is that they’re full for this week. But they need to maintain it. It is a reminder that there’s a significant need in our community.”

A driving rain last Friday kept some clients away during the morning hours. Many of them walk to the Witherspoon Hall municipal building with their children in tow. But by the afternoon sessions, attendance was up. “We had about 40 appointments for the day,” said Ms. Neira. “We’re serving about 150 families.”

The program used to operate out of the Henry Pannell Center on Witherspoon Street, in the neighborhood where many of the eligible clients, some of whom are undocumented, reside. Moving the monthly service to the municipal building may have something to do with the decrease in numbers. “It’s further away from where they live. And people who are undocumented might not feel comfortable taking part in a program like this,” Ms. Neira said. “So we’ve been doing quite a lot of work with that. Mayor Lempert did a public service announcement that will air on TV 30 sometime this week.”

In addition to providing clients with checks for free nutritious foods, as well as education and support, WIC makes referrals to other social service agencies and healthcare providers for pregnant and postpartum women, as well as children up to the age of five. People are often surprised to learn that this type of need exists in Princeton.

“New Jersey is unique in that it contains areas of both extraordinary wealth and extreme poverty,” Kelly Mannherz, the program’s administrator, wrote in an email. “Hunger is everywhere, even in communities you may not suspect like Princeton. The Mercer WIC Program of The Children’s Home Society of New Jersey is here to make sure that no child goes to bed hungry.”

Ms. Howard, who was formerly Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services, ran the WIC programs across the state. “I saw that there is a significant vulnerable population,” she said. “For people in Princeton, this is a resource. They would otherwise have to travel to Trenton for these services, and that isn’t possible for many of them.”