In April, a state agency decided to strip the local WIC program from a North Philadelphia organization that’s run it for 42 years and award it to Temple University instead.

Since then, the normally dull bureaucratic world of social services has been roiled in a swirl of puzzlement and disarray, with local, state, and national WIC experts, as well as 26 bipartisan Pennsylvania legislators, decrying the move as “weird” and “ill-considered,” “disruptive” and “crazy” — especially during a pandemic.

WIC is shorthand for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children. Run and funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, WIC provides nutrition services, breastfeeding support, health care, and healthy foods to participants.

The announcement of a reconfiguration of not only the Philadelphia office but other agencies around the state by the Bureau of Women, Infants and Children within the Pennsylvania Department of Health is being appealed. Temple is scheduled to begin administering WIC in October 2022.

Advocates charge that the change will create so much confusion for people getting 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 say.

Because of the bureau’s choices, Pennsylvania will “no longer have a WIC agency that’s a minority-run nonprofit,” according to Linda Kilby, director of North Inc., Philadelphia’s WIC agency, since 1986. Along with North Inc., “the state’s only other minority-run WIC nonprofits — Erie County and Shenango Valley Urban League Inc. — also lost their programs,” Kilby said.

“At a time when the whole country is thinking about equity, that’s appalling,” said a WIC expert who, like several others contacted for this article, asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation from the state.

Temple will be awarded $30 million over five years to run WIC, a university official said.

Advocates say there are no known official complaints against North Inc. indicating it was performing poorly enough to be jettisoned.

“It escapes common sense that people who ran a program from 30 years won’t be doing it, and people who never did it will be,” said Michael Coates, chairman of the board of North Inc.

The bureau’s actions are not the norm.

“Nowhere across the country are changes like this being made,” said Geraldine Henchy, WIC expert and director of nutrition policy for the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC) in Washington, the largest anti-hunger lobby in America. “It’s creating great upheaval.

“And the loss of any minority-run offices will cause civil rights issues for the federal government. People aren’t going to respect changes eliminating diversity in leadership.”

Beyond that, the bureau’s already been excoriated for potentially endangering clients by choosing a system that issues benefits on EBT (electronics benefit transfer) cards that cannot be reloaded virtually, as in most other states. Women have been forced to travel during the pandemic with small children in tow to WIC offices to renew benefits.

Long criticized for an opaque aloofness, the bureau has remained publicly silent about its WIC decisions. A spokesperson said the appeals process precludes comment.

Bureau orders bidding

Last August, the Bureau of Women, Infants and Children ordered all 23 Pennsylvania WIC agencies to bid competitively for the chance to continue running their own programs, a departure from standard practice. The bureau previously attempted competitive bidding in 2015 but was blocked by state officials.

Advocates are at a loss to explain the bureau’s decision-making.

“The USDA doesn’t require competitive bidding,” said Ann Torregrossa, executive director of the Pennsylvania Health Funders Collaborative, a group of 40 foundations headquartered in Swarthmore. “And it couldn’t have come at a worse time, while agencies were operating remotely because of COVID-19. Many were not able to competitively bid and help mothers and infants at the same time.”

She added that “there was virtually no transparency from the bureau” on how it decided to award WIC contracts.

In an April 30 letter to Gov. Tom Wolf, State Rep. Mark Longietti (D., Mercer) and 25 other legislators cited perceived irregularities in the bureau’s process of awarding WIC contracts. They expressed “concern with the integrity and efficacy” of the undertaking, and requested that Wolf “invalidate” the process until a new one could be instituted.

The letter said the bureau’s method of scoring applications was “subjective and inconsistent.” Legislators asserted that Maternal and Family Health Services of Wilkes-Barre received awards to run WIC programs in 15 counties where it bid for contracts, but failed to get a contract for a 16th, Berks County. If “the same team of individuals prepared all the applications ... ,” legislators asked, how could this be possible?

“This result raises a clear red flag relative to the objectivity and consistency of the scoring process,” they concluded.

Temple is ‘foolish’

During the bureau’s process, Temple was the only new provider that put in a bid, a WIC expert said.

That wasn’t a good idea, according to Henchy.

“WIC’s so hard to administer. It needs continuity,” she said. “Temple’s a great university, but it’s odd they’d want this.”

One person familiar with Temple’s administration speculated that deans at the university are under pressure to capture as many grant programs as possible.

A Pennsylvania WIC practitioner concluded: “Temple is foolish to jump into these waters,” given the vastness of the program. The number of people enrolled in WIC in Philadelphia alone — more than 45,000 — is larger than the number who receive WIC in each of 14 entire states, federal records show.

Beyond that, there are personal connections between WIC clients and counselors likely to be disrupted by a new player, Torregrossa said. “You shouldn’t change horses among people talking about breastfeeding and weight,” she added. “Relationships are really important.”

Nevertheless, Laura Siminoff, the dean of Temple’s College of Public Health, which would run the WIC program, expressed confidence.

“The fact that we would do this is not as startling as it might seem,” she said. Siminoff added that the college administers numerous health- and nutrition-related programs in communities throughout Philadelphia. Also, she plans to hire North Inc. employees to ease the transition.

Countering predictions that the changeover will cause families to lose WIC, Siminoff said: “We will prove them wrong. Our goal is to increase WIC participation.”

Siminoff said Temple will be aided by local nonprofit partners, including the Food Trust, Maternity Care Coalition, and Access Matters.

Brian Lang, a director at the Food Trust, which makes healthy food available to low-income Philadelphians, said Temple “reached out and it felt like a good fit.”

A WIC professional doesn’t like the idea of bidding for WIC contracts.

“This isn’t toilet seats,” the professional said. “The process doesn’t always work right. It’s the experienced group that should do the work.”