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Head of PA food agency for low-income women and children out after agency difficulties

Lately, the official's tenure had been marked by confusion and acrimony.

WIC in Philadelphia is run by North Inc., in North Philadelphia. The state official in charge of WIC has been reassigned.
WIC in Philadelphia is run by North Inc., in North Philadelphia. The state official in charge of WIC has been reassigned.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

The Wolf administration has removed the director of Pennsylvania’s WIC program.

Will Cramer, who was appointed by former Gov. Tom Corbett, ran the Bureau of Women, Infants and Children (WIC) at the state’s Department of Health since 2014, state records show. WIC provides food as well as nutrition information to low-income women and children.

Cramer, whose annual salary is listed as $133,086, has been reassigned to a new, unspecified job at DOH, The Inquirer has learned. He could not be reached for comment.

Lately, Cramer’s tenure had been marked by confusion and acrimony, with WIC professionals around the state finding fault both with his decisions, as well as with a perceived aloofness that they say has hindered open communication and deprived them of data needed to help women and children during the pandemic.

A DOH spokesperson did not answer questions submitted by The Inquirer.

“We do not discuss personnel matters,” a spokesperson wrote in a statement. “The department remains focused on ensuring that women and children who rely on WIC get the services they need.”

Leaders of WIC agencies have recently expressed their discontent to DOH officials who’ve stepped in after Cramer was sidelined. They said state officials responded that their message was being heard “loud and clear,” according to a WIC agency employee.

A national expert on WIC declared that Pennsylvania’s WIC office had been acting “erratically” and had become “an unreliable partner” to the county agencies it’s charged with administering, as well as to the clients who rely on WIC.

WIC is shorthand for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children. It provides nutrition services, breast-feeding support, health care, and healthy foods to pregnant women, new mothers, and infants and children under age 5. It’s funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

After stripping the WIC program from a North Philadelphia organization that ran it for 42 years and awarding the contract to Temple University in April, the WIC bureau reversed itself earlier this month and returned the program to the agency, known as North Inc.

In August 2020, the bureau 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 earlier this year that the state was following USDA guidelines “to consider a competitive procurement [bidding] process,” which resulted in Temple’s being awarded the WIC program. WIC personnel said Cramer told them the same thing.

The USDA has informed the newspaper that no such federal requirement exists.

In addition, new data compiled by the Washington-based Food Research & Action Center (FRAC), the largest antihunger lobby in the United States, show that the state WIC office may have 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.

WIC professionals informed managers now substituting for Cramer that, first and foremost, Pennsylvania needs to modernize its EBT system, said two people who work in WIC who asked for anonymity because they fear retribution to their agencies from the state.

Kathy Fisher, policy director at the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, said an EBT change is vital.

“We’ve been working with WIC advocates to push the Department of Health to fix the problem with the EBT card,” she said. “It should work remotely like a SNAP [food-stamp] card instead of making people go to offices.”

Geraldine Henchy, FRAC’s director of nutrition policy and early childhood programs, and an acknowledged national expert on WIC, said Thursday that it is “highly unusual” for a state to remove a WIC head.

Henchy said that she has interacted with Cramer in the past; the two were speakers at a virtual WIC meeting last October. She said she was astonished that, during that conclave, Cramer had declined to share data with Pennsylvania WIC professionals.

“In the middle of COVID, this was supposed to be a discussion about how we can best maximize access to WIC, and he [Cramer] wouldn’t release state data on client participation,” Henchy said.

Henchy added that she believes the state was also worried about fallout from the “equity” problems that had developed after the WIC bureau initially took the program from North Inc., “which has minority women leadership.”

Henchy stressed that she and other experts were unaware of any documented deficiencies in how North Inc. and other WIC agencies that initially lost their programs were being run. She said she could find no reason why the WIC bureau would have taken away their programs in the first place.

Despite all the difficulties, a DOH spokesperson said on Thursday that the department anticipates issuing “a new ... [bidding process for] WIC local agencies in the future.”

Henchy said: “I don’t know why they would do that again. The best thing for them is to just leave it alone.

“This whole process has turned into a disaster for Pennsylvania officials. And there could be more bad headlines ahead.”