Leading the Nation in WIC Research

As Director of Research and Evaluation for Heluna Health’s Women, Infants, and Children (PHFE WIC) program, Dr. Shannon Whaley heads the only research department of any local WIC agency in the U.S. She and her team have studied childhood obesity, literacy, breastfeeding rates, gestational weight gain, the impact of the WIC food package, and food insecurity, among many other topics. Studies always deal with subjects related to WIC, she says, since “we study what is relevant and what we have data on.”

Dr. Whaley’s team includes two Associate Data Scientists (Catherine Yepez, MPH and Christopher Anderson, PhD) and a Senior Staff Assistant (Martha Meza), in addition to collaborating with the new research group at Heluna Health. Her former postdoctoral students, Maria Koleilat, DrPH, and Taba Nobari, DrPH, continue to collaborate from their roles as professors at Cal State Fullerton.

Dr. Whaley and her team have made important research discoveries over many years. In 2022, Dr. Anderson found that lactose-reduced infant formula made with corn syrup solids—typically marketed for “fussy babies”—increased the risk of childhood obesity compared to other types of formula. The same year, the team released a study with colleagues at Tulane and the University of California showing that children of families participating in WIC drank fewer sugary beverages the longer they participated in the program.

“We try to make sure that in every one of our publications, the policy implications of the research are very clear,” says Dr. Whaley. “That way, when Congress is deciding on funding for something like the monthly WIC cash value benefit for vegetables and fruits, legislators will understand the extent to which the benefit helps families and its cost effectiveness in terms of improving the health of low-income women, infants, and children. “All of this is possible because I have a terrific executive director in Kiran Saluja and an outstanding team,” she says. “We’re very fortunate to have 550 front line staff who care deeply about our clients. They talk to the people. They do the magic. I’m just here to try and document the important work they do every day.”