February 7, 2012

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has awarded the state of Oregon $2.5 million for achieving the nation’s highest rates of breastfeeding.

On Tuesday, Feb. 7, managers for the state of Oregon’s Women, Infant and Children’s Program attributed much of the state’s success in breastfeeding rates to the Multnomah County Health Department. Because of the county’s WIC program, breastfeeding rates in the most urban region of Oregon have surpassed 90 percent.

“You can take credit for that,’’ said Char McKay, a state nutrition counselor who lauded county health employees at a ceremony at the Northeast Health Center in Northeast Portland.

The state presented an award to the county, particularly for the number of WIC mothers who breastfeed exclusively for six months. The longer a mother relies solely on breast milk, the greater the benefits to mother and child. Multnomah County’s rates are especially impressive because it is more racially and socioeconomically diverse.

Breastfeeding is considered a core strategy for preventing illness and promoting health over a person’s lifespan, from lowering rates of asthma and infection in infants to lowering rates of obesity, diabetes and cancer in adults.

McKay said the federal nutrition program known as WIC has changed dramatically in the last 20 years to realize this impact.

“WIC used to be the formula people, where you came to get free formula,” McKay said. “Today, we’re the breastfeeding people. That is huge.’’

About 9.1 million women, children and infants were enrolled nationally in the nutritional program every month in 2010.

Multnomah County’s WIC program, the largest in Oregon, serves more than 22,000 children under age five and nearly 10,000 pregnant, breastfeeding and postpartum women. They receive food, nutrition counseling and access to health services.

Diane Garrett, special projects manager for Oregon WIC, said breastfeeding is a sound investment. Studies have shown that for every $1 an employer spends supporting an employee’s breastfeeding, $3 is returned in reduced health costs.

Garrett said the federal bonus to the state will be invested in strengthening breastfeeding programs.

One of the county’s most successful strategies has been a peer-support program. Peer counselor Shantae Johnson described how moms meet together for nine months and in the process, share tips about talking to providers, overcoming barriers to breastfeeding and “get to be friends.’’

County Commissioner Loretta Smith said when mothers and children are healthy, a community is healthy.

“We have to give it to the mothers,” Smith said. “They do all the hard work. They’re the bedrock of this community.”