The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, is a federal initiative designed to help low-income pregnant women and new moms access healthy food.

Some say it's a critical program for so many families, but participation is low. A recent study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found roughly half of the more than 12 million eligible moms, babies and young children across the country are participating.

Some families utilize it across upstate New York.

There were nearly 16,700 people participating in Erie County in 2021, about 46% of those eligible. In Albany County, almost 43% of the more than 9,700 eligible individuals are taking part; and in Orange County, where there are more than 19,000 people eligible, less than 40% participate.

New York state as a whole hovers around a 53% participation rate.

Pregnant women, women who’ve given birth in the last six months or postpartum, breastfeeding moms, infants until their first birthday and children up to their fifth birthday are eligible.

Kathy Patton, Albany Med Health Systems WIC practice manager, said the program is booming.

There are more than 2,800 enrollees, and all but about 45 of them participate.

Patton believes the connections made at the hospital helps in securing such a high level of participation in her program, and with the ability for remote appointments.

“Before COVID, we used to have people come into the office," she said. "They would have to bring their children, all the documents. A lot of no-shows because people were busy. Now with the phone, we just call them up and they can be taking their lunch hour, say to their boss, 'Hey, I have a WIC appointment, can I take my lunch at 12?' It really works for our families.”

Eligibility estimates for 2022 and 2023 are not available yet, but preliminary data shows WIC participation is starting to rise in most states, with 6.7 million moms, babies and young kids benefitting from the program, according to the USDA study.