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Long Island

With WIC offices closed, pantries and other nonprofits step up to help

Suffolk County Health Commissioner Dr. James Tomarken talks

Suffolk County Health Commissioner Dr. James Tomarken talks on Thursday about the temporary closure of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) at the Long Island office in Melville. Credit: Yeong-Ung Yang

Long Island’s offices for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children will be closed Jan. 14-21 to upgrade to a debit card-based system, and local nonprofits and food pantries will help income-eligible recipients through the week.

WIC offices in Suffolk and Nassau counties will reopen Jan. 22, after moving from paper checks for EBT cards, a statewide change.

The federal program provides financial assistance to low-income pregnant women, breast-feeding women and their children under the age of 5 for healthy foods, baby food and baby formula. It also includes services such as health screenings and nutrition and breast-feeding counseling.

Officials say about 20,000 Long Islanders receive WIC benefits, and the last three-month payment at the end of December covers them until the beginning of April.

New mothers seeking benefits will be unable to apply during the weeklong closure, and elected officials and nonprofit leaders gathered Thursday to inform WIC recipients of other resources available.

“We have a moral, ethical and human responsibility to ensure that our youngest, most vulnerable neighbors have their basic needs met,” Rebecca Sanin, president and CEO of Health and Welfare Council of Long Island, said during a news conference at the council's Melville offices.

That organization worked with Long Island Cares and Island Harvest to assemble a list of food pantry locations on its website. 

While officials fear WIC recipients would be underserved during the week, they spoke in favor of the EBT system changes, which would streamline the program for its users.

Assemb. Kimberly Jean-Pierre (D-Lindenhurst), whose district has pockets of poverty, said she has seen firsthand the program’s flaws.

“I shop at my local grocery, and you see the frustration that people have when they’re checking off, do they have the right milk, did they get the right cereal, and this will eliminate that embarrassment and that stigma,” she said.

Morena Perez, 33, of Central Islip, said in an interview she and her two daughters, ages 2 and 4, rely on the program.

Perez, a   factory worker, has gotten WIC benefits since she was pregnant with her older daughter. She said she’s not worried about missing benefits during the closure but is anxious about the changes coming to a program with which she’s already familiar.

Suffolk County Health Commissioner Dr. James Tomarken said his office would remain open during the closures and help guide recipients who call or visit.

Paule Pachter, CEO of Long Island Cares, noted while the 40 local food pantries are ready to help, most don’t have baby food, diapers or formula, so he urged the public to donate those items.

Mothers can access them at Long Island Cares satellite locations in Freeport, Lindenhurst and Huntington Station.

Mobile outreach units will also visit Centereach, Bay Shore, Bohemia, Brentwood, Elmont, Freeport, Hempstead, Patchogue, Riverhead, Roosevelt, Southampton and Westbury.

The WIC office closure is unrelated to the government shutdown, so recipients can come back to local offices on Jan. 22, when the EBT cards will be available, as will a mobile app, WIC2GO, to help recipients find vendors and items.

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