This story is part of a Scroll series highlighting hunger in Eastern Idaho.
A little family — a mother and two children — sit in the alcove of the office, surrounded by brightly colored toys.
The children play quietly as the receptionist files paperwork nearby. Posters in Spanish and English line the walls, celebrating physical activity and healthy eating.
No, it’s not the doctor’s office: It’s the Rexburg office for Women, Infants and Children, also known as WIC, a government program that offers help for pregnant, breastfeeding and postpartum mothers and young children.
Cathy Schroeder is a clinical assistant here; behind her desk are dozens of brochures in English and Spanish. She doesn’t speak Spanish, but she’s been working for WIC for three years to provide education, training and supplemental nutrition to mothers and children in the Rexburg area.
Nearby is the Department of Health and Welfare, another brightly-lit, modern office with posters and toys.
Supervisor Kevin Willmore said Idahoans don’t realize just how many people receive food and other kinds of assistance.
“We touch a large percentage of the population in Idaho,” Willmore said.
Madison County has the highest rate of food insecurity in Idaho, meaning there are likely many people who have to apply for WIC and welfar.
As of Feb. 22, Idaho had almost 32,000 WIC participants. In Madison County, at least 75 percent of WIC users are BYU-Idaho students, according to their office. Almost 38 million people in the U.S. use SNAP, a food stamp program run by DHW.
Willmore, who has worked for DHW for 28 years, said the office can help eligible participants with health coverage, childcare and aid to elderly and disabled people.
WIC, meanwhile, provides support for pregnant, breastfeeding and postpartum women, and also for children up to the age of 5. Their assistance includes nutrition education, breastfeeding support and supplemental nutrition.
Schroeder said they work on educating young and new mothers about how to raise their children into healthy adults. Because this education is so important, the worst part of her job is that some people simply treat WIC like welfare: Mothers who are there “just for the free benefits, just to pick up checks. They don’t want to listen to anything you have to say.”
All their brochures, flyers and posters are to promote healthy living and eating.
“I wish people understood that us offering nutrition information is not us telling them what to do; it’s us offering them knowledge because we see so many participants every day,” Schroeder said. “We learn every day too, new ideas from other moms and pregnant ones, and we collaborate that together into nutrition education. I wish they understood that’s part of our job.”
Schroeder said they don’t want to be just a free service. Even though they are also funded by the Department of Agriculture, they are not considered welfare.
Schroeder said she wishes people understood that the clinical assistants at WIC are not doctors and they don’t have medical training. The people who work for WIC are simply given intense, strenuous training after they are hired.
It’s the same story of DHW. There is no college degree for working for this department, but everyone is trained extensively before they are allowed to handle cases.
At WIC, they mostly focus on the training and education, and so the only medical training they need is how to test iron levels. Schroeder said they like to do that twice a year for all the participants.
Willmore said some people come into the DHW office thinking the employees there make the policies; but that’s the legislature’s job. Sometimes people will come in hoping for exceptions to rules, but that’s simply not possible.
And if someone has a problem with a policy, they should contact the state or federal legislature. Complaining to the employees won’t do anything.
However, he pointed out that they try to point people in a direction where they can get help, even if DHW can’t help them.
Recently, a man whose wife was in the final stages of cancer came into the office asking for assistance. Although they weren’t able to help him right away, Willmore said, they gave him options and told him to come back later.
“I’ll never forget when he left, just the change in his countenance,” Willmore said. “I could tell he felt that he had finally been able to talk to someone who gave him hope and a direction on what to do.”
Daily life in both of the offices is busy. Schroeder said they once had a day with 56 appointments.
For Schroeder, the hardest part of the job was learning to draw out clients who don’t want to talk. In their interviews, they have to use open-ended questions to get useful answers. “[Asking good questions is] probably the hardest part of the job.”
For Willmore, sometimes it’s difficult when they can’t help someone, especially since they can’t make policy decisions themselves.
But no matter how busy or hard it gets, both Willmore and Schroeder said that exact same thing: “It’s not a thankless job.”
Both of them love working in Rexburg, where they get to meet all sorts of different people from all over the country and all over the world.
Schroeder said the university students especially tend to be so grateful for the help they receive. She also loves the brand new babies she gets to meet. “Awesome. It’s just awesome,” she said.
A couple years ago, Schroeder had a mom and her two daughters come to the office for a check-up.
“[The mom and I] talked and the [girls] drew pictures, and when they got ready to leave, when their appointment was over, they asked if I could come to their house and play,” Schroeder said with a smile. She couldn’t, of course, but even now, when both the girls have aged out of the program and moved on, they still come to visit Schroeder.