County program targets wellness

Retiring director of Women, Infants and Children program reflects on changes


Numbers have grown, the client population has become more diverse, and clinics have found a home in county service centers.

Yet the emphasis on the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program administered through the Washington County Department of Public Health and Environment (PHE) remains the same: helping families eat well and stay healthy.

Sue Chial, a public health coordinator who worked with the program since 1979, closed out her career at Washington County at the end of last year.

The program is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and requires that participants meet income guidelines. WIC provides nutrition education through nutrition assessments, and one-on-one counseling about food, nutrition, and breastfeeding. Public health nurses and dieticians work with clients. When families qualify following financial guidelines, they receive vouchers to buy healthy foods for pregnant or breastfeeding mothers and their children up to age 5. Chial said that the WIC program benefits from strong support from the PHE department, although the program is currently fully supported with federal dollars.

The program grew substantially in Washington County through 2010, to just more than 3,100 average clients a month in 2012. While many programs across the state have seen a decline in WIC participation, the Washington County WIC program continues to serve about 3,100 clients each month.  The leveling off of participation may be due to Minnesota’s declining birthrate over the past six years, and because more families are participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which also provides financial help with food.

Even with the leveling off of participants, Chial noted the positive changes she has seen over the years of providing services for WIC clients.

The emphasis has always been to encourage and coach mothers to breastfeed their babies, and the program sees breastfeeding by new mothers increase each year. It is especially successful among mothers who have participated in WIC programs before their babies are born. Through the years, the program has become more client-centered, Chial said, with more time and effort spent listening to the concerns of the clients, and providing a caring ear, as well as professional advice.

Chial said that she has also seen more mothers with at-risk babies, such as premature babies, in the program. WIC participant diversity has reflected the changes in the population of Washington County with more diversity in its ethnic and cultural makeup. Chial has also seen a growth in the number of mothers who are working or attending school.

Transportation remains a challenge for clients: getting clients to WIC clinic appointments and the grocery store has always been a barrier for families.

Child nutrition continues to be a focus for the program, Chial said, but in recent years, that focus has shifted to averting childhood obesity. Information from the state of Minnesota shows that the rate of obesity in children participating in the WIC program statewide has increased from 8.5 percent in 1990, to a peak of 13.8 percent in 2004. Rates of overweight children followed the same pattern. The rates have dropped slightly since then, and the WIC program will continue to promote healthy eating in children in an effort to reduce that rate in Washington County.

One of the most significant changes over the years was the addition of the county service centers in Forest Lake and Cottage Grove. WIC counselors always met clients in communities throughout Washington County, but the service centers provide a consistent and comprehensive space for clients to see counselors. Previously, WIC staff would meet clients in churches, community centers, or wherever there was space. Now, clinics are in service centers built for them, with other county services close by, such as the library in the Hardwood Creek service center, which clients use on their trips to the clinic, Chial said.

Maggie Domski, a Woodbury resident, will take over the Program Coordinator role for the WIC program, and will continue to emphasize a high-quality, client-focused program. Domski has more than 30 years of experience working in nutrition, and managing programs, and worked with the Washington County WIC program for the past eight years.