In August, the Pennsylvania Department of Health canceled Temple University’s contract to run the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children program, which provides supplemental foods, nutrition education and funding to women, infants and children ages five and older who are found to be at nutritional risk.
Instead, the department will return to contracting with North Inc., a non-profit organization that has managed the WIC program in North Philadelphia for the past 42 years.
The state overturned Temple’s contract because it was “in the best interest of the commonwealth,” wrote Maggi Barton, deputy press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Health, in an email to The Temple News.
WIC is a federal program, but provides states with funding to administer its services. States often choose to run their WIC programs through their health departments or through contracts with non-profit organizations. Pennsylvania contracts with 23 organizations to run WIC, including North Inc.
WIC gives its participants vouchers each month to buy foods targeted for infants, pregnant, or breastfeeding mothers like infant cereal, iron-fortified adult cereal or vitamin C-rich fruits and vegetables, according to their website. Participants also have access to resources like health screenings, nutrition and breastfeeding counseling, and substance abuse referral.
In August 2020, Pennsylvania directed its contracted organizations to submit bids to continue running their local WIC programs for the first time in state history. The state said it enacted the bidding process on orders from the United States Department of Agriculture, but the USDA said the bidding process was part of a state policy, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
This was the first time local WIC programs were required to submit bids for their programs and came with little explanation, said Linda Kilby, the organization’s executive director.
Temple submitted a bid to run WIC in Philadelphia because it believed the program aligns with the university’s mission, wrote Stephen Orbanek, a university spokesman, in an email to The Temple News.
Temple was awarded its contract with WIC in June 2021, which included $30 million to run the program over five years, said Geraldine Henchy, director of Nutrition Policy and Early Childhood Programs at the Food Research and Action Center, a non-profit organization in Washington D.C., lobbying against hunger and malnutrition. The university was slated to begin running the program in October 2022.
The Pennsylvania Department of Health’s decision to contract with Temple was met with skepticism because the state typically keeps its established contracts with nonprofit organizations, Henchy said.
“The leadership in the state of Pennsylvania has been unable to give a reason for why they did this,” Henchy said. “It looks bad. Like we pay all this money to start relationships and then they change things. What is the state doing?”
The process to transition WIC from North Inc. to Temple was underway for several months, and the two sides had begun working together through a series of meetings and visits to WIC offices before the state decided to overturn the contract, Orbanek wrote.
”Temple University is disappointed that it will not be able to complete the process to implement the Philadelphia WIC program at this time,” Orbanek wrote.
North Inc. was surprised by the state’s decision to reinstate their contract, Kilby said.
“I wish I knew what was happening,” Kilby said. “The state has put me in a precarious position because my staff from April 24 has been in shutdown mode.”
The staff at North Inc. has readjusted to running the WIC programs but is wary because the state has informed them it anticipates requiring all contracted organizations to submit bids again in the future, Kilby said.
“That is crazy,” Kilby said. “Not only are they messing with the lives and offices of us, but they are messing with the people who are really in need here.”
WIC’s state leadership has been under scrutiny for allowing bidding on contracts elsewhere in Pennsylvania after the Allegheny County Health Department lost its WIC contract after years of being in charge of the region’s services, WESA reported.