AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Some Texas State University professors are working with the state’s WIC program to develop a chatbot that would provide 24/7 communication capabilities for the program’s clients.
The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, commonly known as Texas WIC, provides one-on-one nutrition counseling, nutrition classes and food packages for pregnant moms and families with children younger than five years old. It is estimated around 50 percent of the babies born in Texas are in the WIC program.
In 2016, there were more than 10,000,000 Texans participating in WIC. That number dropped to 9.8 million in 2017 and just over 8.9 million people participated in Texas WIC in 2018. So far this year, Texas WIC experienced increased participation in March, April and May. There are currently just over 5.4 million people in the program. Research has shown that for every dollar spent in WIC, there is an estimated savings of around $3 in Medicaid in the first 60 days.
“Pregnant women and children are at a particularly vulnerable period of their lives and because in this time, there is rapid development – brain development and physiological development is so important,” said Sylvia Crixell, professor of nutrition at Texas State University.
Crixell says foods that provide a strong nutritional foundation include fruits, vegetables, lean meats and beans or other protein products that aren’t highly processed or have a lot of additives in them.
One of the goals of the chatbot is to allow Texans to get WIC information as soon as they need it. Texas WIC director Edgar Curtis says it’s about “using technology to drive participants to WIC, while expanding the quality of the interactions with humans.”
“For example, you have a scheduled appointment tomorrow at 2 p.m. and you need to kick it back two hours but you only figure that out at midnight,” he said. “You can’t call a WIC help desk to get someone to change that, but with the chatbot, the bot could actually do the change for you and could inform the calendar.”
The chatbot would also be set up so it could guide families to the closest grocery store and WIC clinics.
Lesli Biediger-Friedman, an associate professor of human nutrition at Texas State University, says a chatbot has the potential to guide Texans to learn whether they are eligible for the program. Accessibility, she said, can sometimes be a barrier to participation or retention.
“Healthy nutrition should be available to everyone at all times,” she said. “If we have a program that is in place, that provides a structure to allow anyone who qualifies for this program and needs to get access to it, and they’re not able to get that access because that program is somehow not available because of their work hours, because they live in a remote community or some other reason – if we can create something to make nutrition education, to make nutrition-dense foods, to make high iron foods available, then we are improving the potential of an entire generation of children.”
In the 2016 academic article that Biediger-Friedman and Crixell worked on with Monica Silva, Brittany R. Markides and Kenneth S. Smith, some key takeaways they learned from their interviews with a local WIC program include how social media and ongoing support were said to help facilitate nutritional habits. However, a common barrier was insufficient access to accurate information.
Crixell and Biediger-Friedman, who are also a part of spearheading a research project funded by the Texas Department of State Health Services called Best Food for Families, Infants and Toddlers (Best Food FITS), say as diets have changed over time, it’s critical people know the difference about what’s nutritious and what isn’t. Best Food FITS works on targeting the health of children by reducing their risk for obesity. The focus is to reduce their sugar intake and boost the number of fruits and vegetables they consume.
“There is an obesity epidemic that exists in the United States and across many other nations, developed nations as well as developing nations,” Crixell said.
“We’ve gone from eating more of a whole foods-based diet over a few decades to diets that are highly processed,” she added.
Biediger-Friedman says the goal is to get technology on track with how people are now communicating, while maintaining the important nutritional messages.
“The people who participate in WIC are us,” she said. “The people who participate are our communities. They’re evolving just like the rest of us. We’re all evolving together.”
This project was funded through a U.S. Department of Agriculture Special Project Grant awarded to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.