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Harry Zhang focuses on ensuring that WIC recipients access all of their benefits

By Philip Walzer

Did you know that half of newborns in America are covered under WIC (Women, Infants and Children), the federal nutrition program?

That's good for them, but Harry Zhang wondered if it leads to an unintended consequence: lower rates of breastfeeding.

WIC is the country's largest purchaser of baby formula, which it provides free to non-breastfeeding beneficiaries. Zhang worried that the implicit message was: "Don't breastfeed if you're part of WIC."

In fact, he found that mothers receiving WIC are less likely to breastfeed than others who are not participants.

Zhang's research orbit is huge, running from WIC to the effects of high prices for vegetables. The common thread: health disparities. "I'm very sensitive to equality in society," said Zhang, professor of community and environmental health and director of the Ph.D. program in health services research.

"I'm a minority, and I was a first-generation college student in my family. I'm particularly interested in how I can help low-income people."

Though he's in health sciences, Zhang's degrees are all in economics. He describes himself as a "behavioral economist," trying to nudge people to better practices. So he supports WIC's policy of not displaying formula and suggests more counseling and a breastfeeding support program.

Another major WIC-related research project related to the use of apps to redeem benefits. Recipients with access to the app, he found, have higher rates of redemption of benefits.

The app is available in many, but not all, states. Virginia is developing its version. Washington needs to spend more money so all recipients can get it, Zhang said.

To find the balance on their accounts, recipients need just one click on the app, he said. Without the app, they have to call a hotline and might be subject to a wait. "People will say, 'Forget it. I don't know how much I have; I won't use it.'"

Zhang's work included developing a calculator for the app. "One small innovation of our project created a convenient tool used by millions of people," he said.

He's worked with a handful of state agencies, from Virginia to Nevada, as well as WIC recipients. "You meet so many wonderful persons. They want to work with you to get things done."

Zhang estimates projects he's involved in have received more than $12 million from the National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and other funding agencies.

He's also co-chair of a national network of WIC researchers, seeking to promote collaboration and mentor the next generation of scholars. He's happy that a doctoral student recently chose WIC as the subject of her dissertation.

"I feel very lucky to have found something I have a passion for and the resources to do it," he said. "I've fallen in love with WIC. I may stick with it for the remainder of my career. It's a fun topic to work on."

Read more profiles of ODU researchers in the summer 2022 issue of Monarch magazine, at www.odu.edu/monarchmag

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