Congress Proposes WIC Benefit Cuts for Millions of Parents | Civil Eats

Changes to WIC Benefits Would Cut Food Access for Millions of Parents

In this week’s Field Report, the WIC program faces funding cuts that could affect access to staple foods and infant formula, crop insurance costs rise as the climate changes, and more.

a young parent feeds an infant food that they bought using their wic benefit

September 25, 2023 update: As the September 30 deadline to avoid a government shutdown approaches, a USDA official said that if Congress does not pass a continuing resolution with additional funding for WIC, the program could run out of money within days of the shutdown. On Friday, the National WIC Association sent out another plea to members of Congress. “There is a growing risk that millions of pregnant and postpartum women, babies, and young children will not have the nutrition and health supports they need to thrive. The National WIC Association strongly urges Congress to reach a deal that avoids a shutdown and provides WIC with the funding it needs to support any individual or family who qualifies,” said board chair Kate Franken.

As gridlock in Congress continues to stall key spending bills and threaten another government shutdown, an important program is caught in the crosshairs: WIC, which ensures infants, young children, and pregnant and breastfeeding mothers have enough nutritious food.

Earlier this year, analysts at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) estimated that cuts to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) proposed in the House’s version of an appropriations bill would reduce benefits for 1.5 million mothers and 3.5 million children. And last week, the White House told Congress that even without cuts, the program is underfunded by $1.4 billion and faces a shortfall that could lead to waiting lists.

“If funds are cut, the families in the program would suffer,” said Kate Franken, board chair of the National WIC Association, an education and advocacy group that lobbies in Washington on behalf of state-level WIC agencies. “We haven’t had to utilize waiting lists for 30 years, so now we’re dusting those policies off just to be prepared.”

If the program doesn’t get fully funded Franken said, the first group to lose benefits would be postpartum mothers who don’t breastfeed. “Those are the same individuals and households who just navigated a national infant formula shortage over the last year and a half,” she said.

The situation is surprising some in Washington because, unlike the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), WIC has long enjoyed bipartisan support as a result of its targeted, research-backed design. And since the start of the Biden administration, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has made improving WIC a centerpiece of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) new focus on “nutrition security.”

With additional funding and an update to its food packages, Vilsack’s goal was to increase enrollment, since historically only half of eligible individuals applied.

That’s one factor contributing to a significant increase in participation since 2021. Between May 2021 and May 2023, monthly enrollment increased by about 8 percent, from 6.2 to 6.7 million people. In addition to the USDA’s efforts, Franken said WIC participation tends to closely follow birth rates, which dropped in the early days of the pandemic and then rebounded, creating a bump in 2021.

Plus, COVID-related changes to benefits that added flexibility and value, in the form of extra money for fruits and vegetables, also played a part. “For a number of years, we’ve heard from our participants that they wish that they would receive more buying power for fruits and vegetables, so that’s been very popular,” she said.

Need also likely increased as food prices skyrocketed (and remain high). In one May survey of about 500 low- and middle-income families, more than half of those receiving WIC benefits said they would not have been able to afford enough food or formula without them, and 75 percent said the program allowed them to buy nutritious foods they would not have had access to otherwise.

At this point, since the Senate and House are far apart on their versions of a dozen appropriations bills, it’s likely Congress will pass a continuing resolution to keep the government funded at current levels. (The House’s version of the food and agriculture bill includes many other controversial provisions, by the way, including measures to prevent USDA from implementing updates to the Packers & Stockyards rules and animal welfare rules in organic agriculture.

Both the House and Senate appropriations bills also zero out funding for urban agriculture.) In case of a continuing resolution, the White House is asking that they attach the additional $1.4 billion in funding for WIC to simply keep the program afloat until the longer-term budget is addressed.

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Franken said the National WIC Association is monitoring the situation closely and continuing to educate people and policymakers about what’s at stake. “The bottom line is we rely on Congress to take the steps necessary to provide adequate funding for the program, as they have in prior years,” she said.

Read More:
A Food Program for Women and Children Is About to Get More Support
Do Regulations Designed to Promote Nutrition Make WIC Food Lists Too Restrictive?
Will the U.S. Finally Take a Holistic Approach to Ending Hunger?

Farm Bill Coming Due—and Running Late. Members of the National Farmers Union are headed to D.C. this week for their annual fly-in, but they’ll have to wait to see many of their priorities addressed. In part due to the appropriations debacle described above, lawmakers are finally publicly acknowledging that the 2023 Farm Bill will not be done in time for the September 30 deadline. In response to an inquiry from Civil Eats, a staffer for the Senate Agriculture Committee said that the “Committee continues to work toward the goal of advancing a bipartisan Farm Bill that can be signed into law by the end of the year.” At the same time, reports from Washington last week suggest that some D.C. insiders are pointing to next spring as a more likely scenario.

Read More:
10 Farm Bill Proposals at the Center of the Fight
The Farm Bill Really Matters. We Explain Why.

Crop Insurance in the Era of Climate Change. According to Environmental Working Group (EWG) analysts, the climate crisis has driven up crop insurance costs at an alarming rate over the last two decades. In 2022, taxpayers provided farmers—primarily those growing corn, soy, wheat, and cotton—with more than $19 billion to make up for weather-related losses, compared to under $3 billion in 2001. Crop insurance spending now outpaces spending on commodity programs, and as the impacts of the climate crisis accelerate, it’s likely to increase.

“Without meaningful reform, the federal Crop Insurance Program will become unsustainably expensive for both farmers and taxpayers,” said Anne Schechinger, the agricultural economist who wrote the report, in a press release. “The 2023 Farm Bill provides a critical opportunity for Congress to update the program by cutting rapidly climbing costs, spurring growers to adapt to the climate emergency and better protecting small farmers.” Advocates point to some studies that show that the current program disincentivizes climate-smart practices and investments in more resilient farms, since losses can easily be made up and only apply to single crops, rather than more diversified systems.

Previous proposals to link crop insurance to conservation practices have died in the halls of Congress, as agricultural interest groups generally oppose anything they perceive as a requirement rather than voluntary.

Read More:
Climate Change Is Walloping Farms. Can the Farm Bill Help?
Want Healthier Soil? Link It to Crop Insurance
The IPCC’s Latest Climate Report Is a Final Alarm for Food Systems, Too

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Not-So-Great Salt Lake. In Utah, a coalition of environmental groups filed a lawsuit against the state in an attempt to save the Great Salt Lake and its unique ecosystem. Earlier this year, scientists estimated the lake could dry up within five years if trends to continue as usual. And while warming temperatures and natural variation account for a small portion of the decline, the majority is due to overuse of water from the streams that flow into the lake. Some of that comes from population growth, but agriculture is the number one driver.

Despite its dry landscape, Utah’s agricultural economy is dominated by thirsty industries: massive dairy farms and alfalfa crops for feed, beef cattle, and hogs. In the lawsuit, the groups argue that since natural resources are within the public trust, the state has breached the public trust by allowing farms and developers to divert water at unsustainable levels.

Read More:
Utah’s Industrial Hog Farms Benefit from Biogas Subsidies
As Drought Hits Farms, Investors Lay Claim to Colorado Water

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter and contributing editor. Since 2015, she has reported on agriculture and the food system with an eye toward sustainability, equality, and health, and her stories have appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones. In the past, she covered health and wellness and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

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