There are few people at Heluna Health who know as much about maternal health and nutrition as Kiran Saluja, executive director of Heluna Health’s Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program. A national leader in breastfeeding advocacy, Saluja has devoted nearly all of her career to WIC—2024 will mark her 40th year with the program, the largest local WIC agency in the U.S. Recipient of the 2022 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Center for Health Equity, Education & Research (CHEER), Saluja says, “This work is my life. There is more work to do, and it’s all I want to do.”
Saluja has held several positions with the WIC program during her 40-year tenure, rising in the ranks until she was named executive director in December 2013. “I started loving this job the day I started in 1984,” she says. “I’ve never stopped. It has made me who I am today.”
An Early Engagement with Women’s Health
Saluja grew up in India and saw much of the country in her youth as the daughter of a top military officer who toured countrywide. In 1976, after receiving her master’s degree from the University of New Delhi in Community Resource Management, she conducted post-graduate research in villages in the northern part of the country. “I had never been exposed to the real life struggles these families were going through,” Saluja says. “To see hunger; to see the caste system in action; it was very eye opening. That’s when I knew that I wanted to help women and children. The need was great, and it was so rewarding.”
In 1977, a worldwide boycott of Nestlé infant formula products arose after the company was accused of unethical marketing to women, particularly those in developing countries. At first, Nestlé enticed women, many living in poverty, with free formula. But “because there was no clean drinking water, some babies on formula died of diarrhea,” Saluja says. When the initial free allotments ran out, families had to buy formula, and only then discovered that they could not afford it. “By then, the women’s milk had dried up,” Saluja says. “So many babies died of malnutrition. The term ‘commerciogenic malnutrition’ is imprinted in my memory, and that’s what started my career path in the United States.”
After marrying, Saluja moved to Los Angeles with her husband in December 1980. She worked for a nursing home as food service director while taking classes at Long Beach City College in diet therapy and clinical nutrition. She then enrolled in UCLA’s Master of Public Health degree program in the fall of 1981, all while continuing to work full time.
A defining moment for Saluja came in October 1982, when she gave birth to the first of her three daughters. Her breast milk had red streaks in it, and the hospital staff convinced her that this would be harmful to her baby, forcing her to switch to formula and undergo a battery of tests. “About six weeks later, after I had come home, they told me that I was fine and that all the tests had come back negative,” she says. “But by then it was too late to resume breastfeeding.
“Here I was educated, I had just received my master’s from UCLA, and I was not able to breastfeed because I didn’t have enough information or I couldn’t advocate for myself,” she recalls. “I wondered how women from underserved communities were being treated. So that started me on a quest.”
Saluja joined WIC in 1984 as a supervisor, first running a WIC center near downtown Los Angeles in the basement of a health clinic, providing free supplemental foods and nutrition education, along with other services. A year later, just before giving birth to her second daughter, she was promoted to senior manager, overseeing nutritionists in the field. Her boss, Eloise Jenks, had started the WIC program for Heluna Health, then known as Public Health Foundation Enterprises. “Eloise became a good friend and mentor, allowing me to do what I wanted. She never said, ‘You can’t do this.’ That’s why I’ve been able to do so much.”
Taking the National Stage
In the late 1980s, Jenks began sending Saluja as her representative to national WIC meetings and other conferences, including the USDA’s Breastfeeding Promotion Consortium, which Saluja attended quarterly in Washington, D.C. While she was meeting leaders in women’s health from around the U.S. and the world, she was also making connections with women in Los Angeles who were active in lactation advocacy. In 1992, she helped start the Breastfeeding Task Force of Greater Los Angeles, promoting breastfeeding and advocating for the right of women to breastfeed in public at a time when women were being fined by police for doing so. Saluja became a recognized speaker at local, state, and national conferences, speaking about breastfeeding promotion in the WIC program. She also regularly spoke at La Leche League conferences. Her main message was that WIC needed to increase breastfeeding support, since the rate of breastfeeding among the WIC population was at a historic low.
In the mid-90s, Jenks named Saluja deputy director in charge of nutrition education and breastfeeding. She was responsible for content creation and training WIC staff how to teach WIC families about nutrition in group sessions. She also helped develop some of the first online education classes, which became popular with WIC participants. She helped start the Employee Perinatal Support Program, ensuring that WIC staff had access to nutrition and breastfeeding support for their babies.
In 2002, Saluja was named Secretary of the National WIC Association, and from 1994 through 2009, she served on the California State Breastfeeding Committee, which developed strategic guidelines to improve breastfeeding rates in California, and worked to change the politics of breastfeeding. In that role, she advocated for a major bill to legalize breastfeeding in public, which passed in 1997.
Representing the National WIC Association, Saluja’s national profile was raised in 2010 when she testified in a hearing before the U.S. House of Representative’s Committee on Education and Labor. The topic was the reauthorization of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which provided funding for federal school meal and child nutrition programs for low-income children. It was signed into law in December 2010, and Congress has not passed a Child Nutrition Reauthorization bill since then. Saluja went on to be elected Chair of the National WIC Association and served on the board from 2010-2013.
Jenks retired in 2013, and after a national search, Saluja was named Executive Director. Among her achievements, Saluja cites the growth of the Breastfeeding Peer Counselor (PC) Program—in which moms who have breastfed their babies guide new mothers in the WIC program—and the creation of the Program Quality and Communication division. Saluja says she believes in empowering her staff to drive changes. As an example, she highlights Toncé Jackson, the Senior Health Equity Manager, for the work she has done establishing CinnaMoms, the Heluna Health WIC program designed to support breastfeeding among Black/African American women.
Pivoting during COVID
Over the past few years, COVID-19 presented Saluja with unprecedented challenges. In-person meetings and client interactions were suspended in early 2020. However, when the program switched to remote services and Zoom meetings, the program staff demonstrated great resilience, and participation has increased by more than 20,000 people since 2020. “Now you can load benefits remotely, and people can get certified for WIC benefits over the phone while they’re on their lunch break,” Saluja says. “We’re a lot more user-friendly today. We’ll always have sites for moms who want the personal interaction, but will the new generation who have only known remote services ever want to come in? We have to wait and see. It’s a whole new world and that’s the best part of why I do this job. There’s always something new every day.
“It has been so rewarding to see what the WIC program has done for so many generations,” Saluja says. “There is a saying that WIC is not a hand out, it’s a hand up. I’ve met the WIC babies of yesterday in the halls of Congress, at the Capitol in Sacramento, at school board meetings, at medical clinics, and at community-based organizations. They proudly share that they are WIC graduates and often talk about how they still eat WIC foods and remember WIC nutrition messages. WIC provides a little bit of help and a connection to innumerable resources, plus an education that people can leverage into a whole life of being healthy. As I always say, if you eat like WIC, you can’t go wrong.”