After stripping the WIC program from a North Philadelphia organization that ran it for 42 years and awarding it to Temple University in April, the state has reversed itself and is returning the program to the agency, known as North Inc.

The move, made last week, is part of a statewide turnabout that has seen the Wolf administration cancel controversial plans to terminate several long-standing WIC agency contracts. WIC provides food as well as nutrition information to low-income women and children.

But state officials indicated on Wednesday that yet another effort to reconfigure the program will be attempted soon, making it unclear whether North Inc., the largest WIC provider in Pennsylvania, will ultimately continue to serve its clients.

The shifting process has become so perplexing that a national expert on WIC declared that Pennsylvania’s WIC office was acting “erratically” and has become “an unreliable partner” to the county agencies it’s charged with administering, as well as to the clients who rely on WIC.

“This is unheard of and disruptive, especially during a pandemic,” said Geraldine Henchy, director of nutrition policy and early-childhood programs for the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) in Washington, the nation’s largest anti-hunger lobby.

WIC is shorthand for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children. It provides nutrition services, breastfeeding support, health care, and healthy foods to participants. WIC is overseen by the Bureau of Women, Infants and Children within the Pennsylvania Department of Health, and is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The program serves pregnant women, new mothers, and infants and children under age 5.

Henchy, as well as state advocates, charge that the swirl of seemingly contradictory moves will create so much confusion for people receiving WIC benefits that many will drop off the rolls, which have already been declining. Because the USDA uses WIC participation to determine Pennsylvania’s funding allotment, the state would then lose money, advocates fear.

As it happens, new data compiled by FRAC and others show that the state WIC office may have already caused WIC enrollment to drop in Pennsylvania during the pandemic because it chose a system that issues benefits on EBT (electronics benefit transfer) cards that cannot be reloaded virtually. Women have been forced to travel during the time of COVID-19 with small children in tow to WIC offices to renew benefits, which may have caused them to stop accessing WIC altogether, research suggests.

Nationally, there are just nine states — Pennsylvania included — that require WIC-eligible families to reload benefits in person. During the pandemic, those states experienced a 9.3% decline in participation, compared with states that allowed reloading remotely, according to Aditi Vasan, a pediatrician and health services researcher at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania.

WIC participation in Pennsylvania declined nearly 9% during one year of the pandemic, from February 2020 to February 2021, a pattern repeated in other states that require in-person EBT-card reloading, according to FRAC. That’s a drop from 190,476 people to 173,871, a loss of nearly 17,000 clients. Meanwhile, New Jersey, which uses the more modern remote reloading system, saw an increase of 6.5% in WIC participation to nearly 141,000.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health did not answer specific questions posed by The Inquirer, instead issuing a brief statement saying the state canceled the WIC overhaul after “discovering a technical issue.” The nature of the issue wasn’t revealed.

The statement added without specifics that Pennsylvania will once again engage in a “competitive application process for all WIC local agencies...[which] remains a critical step toward further program enhancements.”

The statement concluded that the Pennsylvania Department of Health “will continue working to improve the WIC program for all beneficiaries at both the state and local level.”

Bidding ordered

Last August, the Bureau of Women, Infants and Children surprised everyone involved in WIC by ordering all 23 Pennsylvania WIC agencies to bid competitively for the chance to continue running their own programs, a departure from standard practice.

A Wolf administration spokesperson told The Inquirer that the state was following USDA guidelines “to consider a competitive procurement [bidding] process,” which resulted in Temple’s being awarded the WIC program.

But in July, the USDA told the newspaper that “there is no federal requirement that WIC state agencies competitively bid for local agencies. Pennsylvania state policy requires competition.”

When Temple University got the WIC program from North Inc. during the bidding process, advocates protested, saying it would be extremely difficult for a newcomer to serve the 45,000 people — most of them children — enrolled in WIC in Philadelphia. Their complaints grew louder when the state announced without explanation in July it would cut the proposed 12-month transition period from North Inc. to Temple to three months.

Meanwhile, in a letter to Gov. Tom Wolf last spring, 26 state legislators cited perceived irregularities in the bureau’s process of awarding WIC contracts, and expressed “concern with the integrity and efficacy” of the undertaking.

Some agencies that lost their WIC programs in the initial overhaul initiated appeals.

Temple ‘disappointed’

Earlier this week, Temple released a statement saying the university is “disappointed that it will not be able to complete the process to implement the Philadelphia WIC program at this time.” The statement added that the university was grateful to both the state and North Inc. for their assistance. Temple has already expended considerable time and money to create a WIC program, sources said.

Linda Kilby, who runs North Inc., said she’s concerned about the “psychological roller-coaster” both her staff and WIC participants have had to endure.

Henchy said the state’s initial removal of the program from North Inc. had raised “serious equity issues,” since it was one of few “minority-led” WIC agencies in Pennsylvania.

Summing up the convoluted series of events, two advocates who asked for anonymity in exchange for a frank assessment said in a statement, “People who work in WIC are appalled at what’s occurred:

“In the middle of a pandemic, every agency had to put in a bid to run WIC in every county. No scoring criteria was discussed, so you didn’t know what aspects of the work to emphasize. When the winners were announced, a large number of bidders doing this for decades were found to be unqualified and told they couldn’t bid again. But then, after it turned out that some WIC programs had no bidders, people were told they could bid again after all.

“Then, those that got a new contract, like Temple, were told there’d be a long transition period allowing for orderly transfer and timely appeals to resolve. Then that period was curtailed dramatically.

“After that, the state canceled the changes, only to add, ‘Oh, by the way, we’ll be bidding again.’

“They’re tone-deaf. It’s just nuts.”

Going forward, the state should concentrate on “fixing EBT-card problems that have led to the death spiral in enrollments,” said Ann Torregrossa, executive director of the Pennsylvania Health Funders Collaborative, a group of 40 foundations headquartered in Swarthmore.

Torregrossa said the state should use portions of the $7 billion it’s received from the federal American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 to modernize the card system.

She added, “We should be doing everything possible to help the group of vulnerable people who access WIC.”