A new effort is underway to get more eligible Vineyard families to take advantage of a federal food program for women and young children.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded nonprofit Health Imperatives $374,000 to address hunger, health disparities and the Island’s severe under-enrollment in a nutrition program for women, infants and children, commonly known as WIC.

The new initiative was announced this week and will help inform nationwide efforts to expand WIC programs.

Only about 43 per cent of the Vineyard families that qualify for WIC actually use the program, which provides healthy foods, nutrition education and other services to women and young children.

Health Imperatives, which has a clinic in Vineyard Haven, said barriers include wealth gaps, geographic isolation and immigration status.

To increase enrollment, Health Imperative plans to hire two Islanders as WIC staff, pay current and former WIC clients to serve as ambassadors for the program, and increase partnerships with Island organizations to make it easier for people to access services.

“Martha’s Vineyard’s extreme wealth gap and growing diversity make it incredibly difficult for hard-working people to meet their basic needs,” said Health Imperatives CEO Julia Kehoe.

A similar pilot program was done on Nantucket, where WIC enrollment increased by more than 50 per cent, according to the nonprofit.

Health Imperatives plans to partner with Island Grown Initiative, an Island-based food security nonprofit, to help with the effort.

“Together, through community outreach, nutrition education, and streamlined access to WIC services, we will work to ensure that no family on the Island lacks access to healthy, nutritious meals,” Island Grown executive director Rebecca Haag said.

The 18-month initiative on the Vineyard could be used as a model to help other communities struggling to connect with eligible families.

“The whole point is to go back to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and say this is how we were able to get more people on the program who should be on the program,” Ms. Kehoe said.