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Federal food programs, like WIC, face big changes coming out of the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health. Meanwhile, a single moms collective in Ohio holds it down for the single pregnant and parenting people in their community. Motherful’s resource pantry serves their 325-strong membership out of a garage three times a week. We talk to members and founders to learn what’s it’s like to participate, how it all started and where food justice is headed for them now and in their wildest dreams.
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In this special mini-episode, producer Amy Gastelum sits down with Rebecca Piazza to learn more about WIC, and what the program is doing to try and increase its low participation rates.
Show Opener Button: Making, making, making contact. Making contact.
Amy Gastelum: On today’s making contact:
Kay Riley: So I don’t have family and I don’t have the resources. So when you don’t have the resources, you have to go and find them.
Amy Gastelum: We’re gonna go to central Ohio where a single mom’s collective hosts a resource pantry.
Heidi Howes: We’re just looking for resources that we can just give to moms with no barriers to entry with no, um, requirements, you know, and so that’s what we’re all about.
Amy Gastelum: I’m Amy Gastelum. Stay with us.
Rugi Ngaide: This is the fridge. This is where we have all our veggies.
As you can see, the veggies.
Amy Gastelum: It’s a sunny Sunday morning Rugi Ngaide sorts through a refrigerator stocked with fresh berries and tomatoes. This is the Motherful resource pantry. She’s one of a handful of women helping to stock the shelves before it opens at 10, but she’s also shopping.
Rugi Ngaide: This is the freezer. We have a lot of things for evening nights, you know: Banana Fritters. Look at this! I love mushrooms. I love ravioli. I’m taking this home.
Rugi Ngaide: Everything comes from Trader Joes.
Amy Gastelum: There are a few local companies that donate, but Rugi’s right. Most of the food comes from Trader Joe’s. They give away stuff they can’t sell to local organizations. Motherful serves single moms like Rugi and their families. They know that having enough healthy food is especially important to kids’ health and development. Here’s one of the founders, Lisa Woodward
Lisa Woodward: Well, I’m super creative and that’s what I like to do is, um, find ideas and think of ideas. Um, I was a teen mom. But I was super, um, uh, good at finding resources. Yeah. That’s, that’s me. Like, I like to find stuff.
Amy Gastelum: when they first started, Lisa Woodward and her daughter Ginger would wake up early before school to pick up the food
Lisa Woodward: Then we would drive back home and I would get her out and get her dressed for school, take her to school, and then bring the food to the food pantry and put it away.
So that’s how, that’s the beginnings of it. And then we finally hired, someone to pick up the food every day, cuz it was, it was getting a lot, but, um, we’re happy to have it.
Amy Gastelum: Motherful doesn’t check IDs or pay stubs, and they don’t ration what people can take.
Lisa Woodward: And it’s all high quality, yummy food. We have tons of fruits and vegetables. Um, we get a lot of meat and eggs, some surprises. Sometimes Trader Joes will give us buckets and buckets of flowers or we get, a whole lot of asparagus at once. You never know. You never know. But it’s all good stuff. And, uh, our moms volunteer and just help it keep going, our pantry.
Amy Gastelum: Besides food, the pantry is packed with diapers and baby formula. There’s detergent, shampoo, and even clothing. Black Lives Matter signs hang from the rafters. It’s organized enough to find the essentials, but unexpected treasures like romance novels also surface here. Motherful’s pantry is sort of like going to an auntie’s house and searching through the spare fridge she keeps in the garage. It’s almost 10, time to open for business. Some of the helpers take off, but the ones who stay are hoping they’re gonna see some babies today.
Chere Hampton: Hey, that baby deserves all the pictures.
Rugi Ngaide: Make her pay. Make her pay. That’s what I’m telling you.
Ron: Love you.
Chere Hampton: Love you too. Hey, that baby deserves all the pictures. Wait till he see him.
Amy Gastelum: the volunteers take a seat around a table and they stay there until the early afternoon. Hearing them talk and laugh makes it cozy. Meanwhile, a young woman walks in. What you getting?
Kay Riley: Similac because there’s a shortage, so I’m just gonna take a few.
Amy Gastelum: Kay Riley stocks up on formula for her newborn daughter, Wisdom, then asks a volunteer for help finding the right size diapers.
Kay Riley: Excuse me sir. Um, do you what size these might be?
Volunteer: Uh, let’s see. I don’t know for sure. Which size are you looking for?
Kay Riley: Newborn.
Volunteer: The smallest ones we got, right? Yes. Let’s see this is ones, Yeah.
Kay Riles: She can wear ones too, so that’s fine. Yeah.
Amy Gastelum: on her way out. Kay stops when she sees a pile of books. Have you gotten books from here before?
Kay Riley: I have. I actually read one of ’em already, which is really good. And they have, um, a book club as well, so
Amy Gastelum: Are you a part of it?
Kay Riley: Um, I am not yet, but I intend to be after I get, I just had my baby, so after I get her settled with, I definitely intend to join their book club.
Amy Gastelum: She pockets a novel and heads to her car. Could we, it, would it be possible to sit in your car or in my car for just a second? To talk a little bit?
Kay Riley: Yeah, absolutely.
Amy: Is that okay? cute purse.
Kay Riley: Thank you
Amy Gastelum: Kay says she started coming to mother full about three months ago, pretty late in her pregnancy.She’s from a small town in northeast Ohio, but she’s in Columbus to go to school at Ohio State.
Kay Riley: So, um, yeah, this definitely has been extremely helpful for me in my journey as a mother.
Amy Gastelum: So how so?
Kay Riley: So I don’t have family and I don’t have the resources. So when you don’t have the resources, you have to go and find them. And this has been a huge help. Um, not only, you know, um, they offer diapers and all that good stuff, but they also offer community. And I think that’s the most important thing. Especially when you’re a single mother by yourself, there’s other single mothers that can relate to you. So I think that’s the most important thing that it offers community.
Amy Gastelum: Some of the moms at the pantry today qualify for a government program called the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, also known as WIC. It’s kind of like food stamps, but it’s only for pregnant people and anyone whose children are under five.
Kay Riley: Are you using WIC? I am. Yes, I am.
Amy Gastelum: And, um, what’s that been like?
Kay Riley: It’s been very helpful, especially with a formula, um, outage you still can’t really, it’s still hard to find formula, but you don’t really have to worry about the price. That’s been good.
Amy Gastelum: Okay, Full disclosure: I’ve been a public health mother/baby nurse for over 10 years. I’ve helped lots of people connect with WIC, and my mom used it in the 1980s, but I had never used it myself until pandemic lockdowns. I didn’t love it.
Amy Gastelum: I had a baby not too long ago and I was using wic and for me and our family, it was about like $40 a month basically was kind of what it equaled out to.
Kay Riley: Yeah.
Amy Gastelum Which isn’t huge, I’ll be honest.
Kay Riley: Yeah, that’s true.
Amy Gastelum: It’s not, it doesn’t cover all of your food costs.
Kay Riley: At all, at all, at all. But, um, yeah. It doesn’t, I have to agree with you, but a little bit is I’m still grateful for the little bit that it does provide, but it would be nice if they provided a little bit more, you know, but Yeah.
Amy Gastelum: Um, and then the other, one of the other things that I found using it too is that it, it can be kind of complicated because it, you have to buy certain foods and not every grocery store even…
Kay Riley: Yes. I’ve definitely found that not every grocery store even takes WIC and then you have to scan it. And then just, it’s just a lot. I’ve definitely dealt with that. Just trying to find foods that qualify for WIC can be extremely, it can be extremely hard and annoying.
Amy Gastelum: I wanna jump in here to explain what we’re talking about. You can only use WIC to buy certain types of food. The idea here is that by limiting choices, WIC is guiding pregnant and parenting people to healthier food, like whole grain options.
Also, participants have to make monthly visits to a nutritionist. That can be hard for busy parents.
WIC sees itself as more of a health intervention than a food security program. And to be fair, studies have shown that WIC participants have less premature birth and low birth weight, but they have a big problem.
Less than half the people who are eligible for WIC actually use it, about 43%. That’s compared to 84% of eligible food stamps users, a program with much less restrictions and rules. It’s difficult to know exactly why participation is so low, but as a user, I can tell you that besides the food restrictions and the mandatory visits, there’s also a shaming factor.
Amy Gastelum: And, there were times when I would get to the register and the person ringing me up didn’t really know how to ring up WIC
Kay Riley: Yeah.
Amy Gastelum: And then it’s like all your business is everybody’s business.
Kay Riley: Yes. It can. Yeah, it can be uncomfortable. I, that’s happened to me, like, and they’re screaming, Well, I don’t know how to use WIC and just scream to the whole world, why don’t you? Just tell the whole world about my business, why don’t you ? I think they definitely should train the individuals a little bit more on WIC, um, definitely confidentiality as well, cuz not everyone wants people to know that they’re on WIC. That’s just the honest truth. Um, and they should be able to know how to use it
Amy Gastelum: Because there’s stigma.
Kay Riley: Yeah.
Amy Gastelum: Like you don’t know if the guy behind you in line is gonna be like, , I, You’re welcome.
Kay Riley: Exactly
Amy Gastelum: For my tax dollars.
Kay Riley: Yeah. And that’s actually happened before with me, which was very uncomfortable.
Amy Gastelum: So one time, Kay was shopping with her sister. They were at the register when the man in line behind them started to laugh.
Kay Riley: And he was like, I’m glad my government or government told, he said something about government, um, I guess, uh, pays your food.
And we just kept on walking. It was very uncomfortable for me. Um, so yeah, and I’m not used to that. So yeah, definitely confidentiality. Not everybody wants people to know that they’re on WIC, but it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Honest. I had to learn that. Um, how to humble myself and learn it’s not, it’s not a bad thing. It just has a negative connotation to it, which is unfortunate because a lot of women do need WIC.
Amy Gastelum: How did you convince yourself that it wasn’t anything to be ashamed of? Where did that come from?
Kay Riley: Um, I guess it just came in from just internalizing me in my own insecurities of using governmental assistance.
Like it’s not, a lot of women use it and it’s, it’s okay to use it if, especially if you don’t have the resources. What can you do? I, I didn’t have the resources at the time, so I meant it’s nothing, nothing to be ashamed of. Nothing at all. You’re new mom, you’re a woman and, and I’m a single mom at that, so I’m, I’m just using the resources they’ve given, you know what I mean? So,
Amy Gastelum: which don’t even cover your whole bill
Kay Riley: doesn’t even cover my whole bill. Not even half, Not even half, not even a quarter, I don’t think.
Amy Gastelum: Each state has their own restrictions and rules when it comes to WIC, and some of them don’t feel like a health decision, they feel like a budget decision. In Indiana where I live, you have to buy the least expensive eggs and milk available. You can get organic produce, but you’re not allowed to buy organic shelf stable food or organic baby food.
And it can be hard for stores. Each grocery store that wants to be a vendor must stock a minimum amount of WIC-approved foods at all times. It can be hard for some local independent stores to meet that requirement, especially international markets. For them, most of the brands and types of food available through WIC are culturally irrelevant for their customers.
Here’s Rugi again.
Rugi Ngaide: You know, being an immigrant, it’s a whole new process. It’s like being reborn.You have to first unlearn and then learn when you come here. You’ve got all kind of information. It took me a while to go through the right channels. I even thought if you take benefits, you will never be, you will never be documented because they hold it against you. So it takes you awhile to just realize that this is just for the child, you know? So I, I had WIC with my second child.
Amy Gastelum: Rugi is Muslim and likes to shop at Halal stores.
Rugi Ngaide: they don’t take WIC so it’s, it’s a problem I don’t know what should be done. Small businesses working with WIC and working with all small business owners so it could be accessible to the people.
Amy Gastelum: You’re listening to Making Contact and a story about the single Mom’s Collective Motherful. To learn more, visit us at radioproject.org or our Facebook page. On Twitter, we are making_contact on Instagram we are makingContactRadioProject. Okay, now back to the show.
(music fades out)
Amy Gastelum: In September, President Biden took to the podium to talk food policy.
Announcer: Welcome to the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health.
Joe Biden: it’s been over 50 years since President Nixon convened the original White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health and that single conference and the laws that it inspired, lead to transformational change that has helped millions of Americans live healthier lives for generations.
Amy Gastelum: So WIC came out of that first conference and was up and running by 1974. Since then, lots of changes have been made to the program, but the changes have been to which kind of cereal, how many grams of sugar in the juice. Never, should we really be dictating the foods pregnant and parenting people can eat?
This year, even more program changes are coming, mostly to get people to sign up. You can visit our website to hear an interview with leadership at the U S D A for more there. Meanwhile, the collective at Motherful is holding it down for single moms in central Ohio.
Rugi Ngaide: We are, uh, an open, progressive, nonprofit.
Amy Gastelum: Here’s Rugi again.
Rugi Ngaide: We support the Black Lives Matter movement. We support the L G B Q plus community. We support all immigrants no matter what their status is. We would support any woman no matter what her choice, but we are a pro-choice movement. So we we’re just an open movement inclusive that tries to be also wholesome. Not only work with moms, but try to take care of all the needs that a single mother’s family can have.
Amy Gastelum: The food pantry is just one of the ways Motherful supports single moms. Their core values include reparative justice and healthcare for all. They host community dinners and biweekly zoom calls with guest speakers. It’s more than a place to find food or baby items. It’s a politically aware hug around about 325 single moms in their families.
Rugi Ngaide: They’re not big CEOs. It’s mothers like us. We’re all together. We are consulted at every level. It’s a partnership. I have my own programs here. I get to have inputs and to say, this is what I wanna see happen. And they make it happen. I make it happen. They give me the space, the voice, we talk, we decide this is something that is relevant and we will do it.
Kay Riley: Like I said, community is the, is the best resource. I would say. Just community, knowing that others have went through the same thing I’ve went through is definitely comforting.
Amy Gastelum: What does that mean for you when you, you keep saying community, like what does that really look like on a day to day for you?
Kay Riley: Um, , if you’re feeling down, postpartum, you can always ask a friend to, you know, go out. Um, people still check up on me in the community. And not only that, they have an app for Motherful where you can tell your feelings and other women can, you know, reply and give you hope. um,
Amy Gastelum: Have you been using that?
Kay Riley: I have, I have a lot
Amy Gastelum: In the middle of the night?
Kay Riley: In the middle of the night. I’m like, I feeling a little depressed . So, Yeah. But yeah,
Amy Gastelum: I know about that 3:00 AM thing where you just wake up.
Kay Riley: Yeah. That’s, No, it’s a real thing. It’s real. It’s real.
(ambient comes up, baby cries)
Heidi Howes: he’s like, Where’s my mommy?
Amy Gastelum: Back at the food pantry, I sat down with Heidi Howes. She’s co-founder and co-director of Motherful. It’s time for her baby to nurse, so we settle into chairs in an upstairs room. Kids are playing and somebody’s vacuuming downstairs.
Heidi Howes: Mm-hmm. Punkin. And I was able to get the kids out too. There was a bunch of kids. So if you don’t mind I’m going to nurse him here.
Amy Gastelum: I asked Heidi how WIC relates to Motherful’s plan for food justice.
Heidi Howes: Um, we, we do have a partner through WIC that we just recently connected with, who is a mom who works there. Um, and so we’re looking into it, but, you know, we we’re just looking for resources that we can just give to moms with no barriers to entry with no, um, requirements, you know, um, it’s like you need it. Here it is. And so that’s what we’re all about.
I personally, I may qualify for WIC right now. I’m not sure. I’ve had WIC in the past, but I actually didn’t, um, like WIC in the past because it was dairy and we don’t eat dairy and I don’t eat dairy.
Um, but I know now they do have fresh vegetables and that was something that I think I got on the tail end when my last child was born. But, um, I haven’t signed up for WIC.
Lisa Woodward: I was a teen mom and I definitely took WIC multiple times cuz I have three daughters.
Amy Gastelum: Here’s Lisa Woodward again. She and Heidi started Motherful together. I asked her how Motherful’s resource pantry is different from the WIC program.
Um, how is it different? Um, this is a collective in a community. When, when I was going through the WIC system, there was not, um, any sisterhood with either of the WIC clients. Um, our food pantry and garden, it’s more free. You can get how much you need, and you can come multiple times.
We don’t have any like direct nutritional counseling like, WIC has. But we do have moms that share information all the time. Um, just about healthy eating. There’s also a lot of different, local, orgs that deal with nutrition and, um, so we’re connected. So when they have programming, we do, post it on our site. But um, we partnered up with WIC for their farmer’s markets, so we were there. Um, folks were coming to get food and then they would also find out about our programming too. And we look forward to, um, tabling with them again as needed.
Most of the people that come through WIC are new moms or pregnant moms. Um, so that’s really good for us cuz most of our moms are not, um, adding to their family and so it’s good that we have those can help those moms too, that are new, new moms that, and you’re a single mom, that’s like a double, that’s a double whammy. So, um, we encourage those connections.
Amy Gastelum: if, if you could, um, imagine like food for single mothers, someone such as yourself, like in your wildest dreams, like what would you, what would you want for someone in your position?
Kay Riley: I would say like, for a period of time, just covering, I would just say like, at least like half, I guess half of the expenses.
It can be extremely hard. I’m not saying if you’re working and if you’re able to work, um, I would say a half. But if you’re not able to work, I feel like due to you having a child and stuff, I, I feel like the government should assist mothers, single mothers, especially when they’re single, they, you can’t go to work because you just had a baby. I think they should,
Amy Gastelum: Some people call that unpaid labor.
Kay Riley: Um,
Amy Gastelum: Meaning, when you’re taking care of your baby, it is work, right? Like
Kay Riley: You’re right. That’s,
Amy Gastelum: you’re working.
Kay Riley: Yeah. That’s exactly what I was gonna say.
Amy Gastelum: You just don’t get paid.
Kay Riley: Even not even having the baby, just carrying the baby itself. Having to worry about your fat feet and then everything else that comes with pregnancy. That’s hard work. That is extremely hard work. Having to deal with, um, the insecurities of your body after, that’s hard work that you have to do internally. There’s so much, so much components to pregnancy, even after pregnancy that women have to deal with. Uh, that’s work to me. That’s work. , so. . Yeah, that’s labor for me.
Heidi Howes: Whew. Um, you know, the ultimate dream would be like every household has a garden.
Like, there’s a gardening committee that comes to your house and puts the garden in and it comes every week and helps you weed and teaches you. Um, and then also like fresh, healthy food is delivered to mom’s houses, period, preferably cooked. Um, that’s actually what we would love to do here at Motherful is to have prepared foods, um, that we can just give to moms because, um, it’s impossible to do all of these things, you know, as one person in a family, and, um, why not?
You know? So bring the fresh, healthy food to right to the doors of moms so that they can, you know, take a bath instead of cooking that meal, you know? It’s really, really hard work being a mom, you know, raising children and, um, you’re sore, your body hurts, you know, um, just need a minute to rest and, and decompress. So you can be in, you know, your full state of, of love and care to give that to your children, you know, because if moms are good, everybody’s good.
Lisa Woodward: Yeah. Um, just the highest quality of, um, Of produce Um, the prepared food thing, that’s definitely high on my list, and just someone to, um, help our garden just multiply.
Amy Gastelum: Back in the garage, everybody packs up for the day. Rugi likes to check in at the end to see about the tomatoes. If there are any left, she takes them home.
Rugi Ngaide: I make my tomato paste every other Sunday. I make everything from scratch. So then this is helping.
Heidi Howes: Our ultimate goal, um, as an organization is to build a co-housing village here in Columbus, Ohio.
And then to take the model of the Motherful, uh, organization and build chapters throughout the world. You know, so that other moms can be empowered to work together for better lives, for themselves and their children, and also ultimately to uplift the matriarchy. I just see that mothers in power, with each other and others as, as opposed to power over, which is a patriarchal model.
You know, if mothers are empowered, like people are gonna be loved, they’re gonna be fed, they’re gonna be housed, they’re gonna be clothed, they’re gonna be taken care of, you know, and it’s just, it’s a no brainer. So if we can get moms out from under the invisibility and out from under the straight up slavery of reproductive labor and get them into leadership, you know, while they’re also being taken care of, you know, and bring children into our common spaces again too. You know, Uh, I think that that’s gonna change the world when moms are, when moms are running things. It’s gonna be so much better and it’s just a matter of time.
Amy Gastelum: You seem, you seem convinced.
Heidi Howes: I mean, don’t you see it? You know, it has to happen. We can’t, I mean, it’s, it’s that, or destruction. Absolute destruction, you know, unless we bring the matriarchal ways back into the forefront. And by that I mean valuing life, valuing the sacred life of all, and love and nurturing and care and interconnectedness and all these things, um, that, you know, colonialism, capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, all these things that have been suppressed and killed, due to those, um, those powers.
Like when we bring back the matriarchy, when we bring back the matriarchal ways, then we’ll be able to save our planet and save ourselves. So it has to happen or else it’s death. You know, matriarchy is, life.
Amy Gastelum: I’m Amy Gastelum and you’ve been listening to Making Contact. To learn more about Motherful or upcoming changes to WIC, visit our website, radioproject.org.
Go ahead and visit us on social media. You can always check in with us on Facebook. We love hearing from you. On Twitter we are making underscore contact, on Instagram we are MakingContactRadioProject. That is it for today’s show. For Making Contact I’m Amy Gastelum, until next week.