WIC Shortfall Could Leave 2 Million Women And Children Hungry | Civil Eats

WIC Shortfall Could Leave 2 Million Women And Children Hungry

In this week’s The Field Report, we report on WIC under threat, women farmworkers advocating for greater rights, and a fertilizer plant acquisition that fans consolidation fears. 

Since 1997, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) has received consistent federal funding from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Even during periods of gridlock, members of Congress have always been able to put aside their differences when it comes to funding nutritional benefits for low-income women and children. As a result, millions of women and children struggling with food insecurity have received healthy food, referrals to other social programs, and breastfeeding support at pivotal times in their lives.

Yet Congress recently broke with this precedent in a move—or rather a delay in action—that could jeopardize those nutritional benefits for the most vulnerable families, following a year of record-high food prices and deepening hunger across the U.S.

“Our country has always had a promise when it comes to WIC that it will be there to serve all eligible participants,” Georgia Machell, the interim president of the National WIC Association, told Civil Eats. “If you’re eligible for the program, you should be able to access it. If that promise is broken, it really puts families at risk.”

“We wouldn’t start to see waitlists until a few months down the road, but I think something that’s important to keep in mind is that it’s going to be different for every state.”

Last week, Congress passed a resolution—for the third time—that would keep the government open and fund WIC at its pre-existing level, or $1 billion less than what’s needed to fully fund the program. At least 2 million women and children  are at risk of being turned away by September if WIC is not funded to its full capacity, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. If that happens, women and children will likely be put on waiting lists for the first time in over 25 years, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

In 2022, a staggering 39 percent of all infants within the U.S. relied on WIC support. In total, the program served nearly 6.3 million pregnant and postpartum women and children under 5 in 2022, providing a consistent source of nutrition to many vulnerable families. Research has found that WIC improves birth outcomes, lowers infant mortality, reduces Medicaid expenses, improves cognitive development, and increases childhood immunization.

This shortfall comes at what would have otherwise been a celebratory time in WIC’s history. This month marks the 50th anniversary of the opening of the first WIC clinic in Pineville, Kentucky, in 1974. Yesterday, Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear gathered with national and local WIC staff and advocates and other program pioneers at Pineville’s original clinic to honor its legacy and fight for its future.

“Right now, we have a major responsibility to ensure that this program continues,” said Beshear, who is a Democrat, in a speech given at the gathering. “All that I ask is that Congress and our state legislature start not with what party they’re in, or what color they wear on their ties, but with the basic empathy that we are taught to have for one another. We’re taught the golden rule, that we love our neighbor as ourself.”

Since its launch, the WIC program has grown dramatically. It operates in every state and is administered through local health departments, across 10,000 clinics, nearly 2,000 local agencies, and 33 tribal organizations.

If there is a shortfall, it isn’t expected to hit all at once because WIC is so widely administered and depends on individual state policies. “We wouldn’t start to see waitlists until a few months down the road, but I think something that’s important to keep in mind is that it’s going to be different for every state,” said Machell.

According to WIC’s regulations, participants who are most medically at risk are prioritized in a budget shortfall. The waiting lists would first include postpartum women who are not breastfeeding, followed by children between ages 1 and 5, without high-risk medical issues, according to the USDA. However, the agency anticipates that waiting lists could extend even to the most vulnerable groups, including infants.

“Given the size of the funding shortfall, it is likely that waiting lists would stretch across all participant categories, affecting both new applicants and mothers, babies, and young children enrolled in the program who are up for renewal of benefits,” a USDA spokesperson said in an e-mail to Civil Eats.

As a last resort, “if other measures aren’t enough to close the shortfall, some states could be forced to suspend benefits for current participants,” added the spokesperson.

Beyond these drastic measures, budget cuts will probably affect the nearly 7 million participants and lower the quality of service across WIC’s offices. “States are also likely going to pull back in other ways. They’ll limit outreach. They won’t pursue cross enrollment efforts with other programs like SNAP and Medicaid. They’ll reduce their clinic hours,” said Katie Bergh, a senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. She notes that this shortfall would also likely deter eligible people from applying to WIC.

Bergh also said that the estimate of “around 2 million” that could be turned away for WIC benefits, if not fully funded, is an underestimate. It will likely be higher now in light of the recent resolution, which gives Congress until March to fund WIC in an appropriations bill and leaves states with less time to plan for a shortfall.

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For months, the Biden administration has urged Congress to fund WIC, while seeking the support of community advocates. In December, the USDA warned that “a federal funding shortfall of this magnitude presents states with difficult, untenable decisions about how to manage the program.” And last week, the USDA and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) sent a letter to faith and community leaders to ask for their help in advocating for WIC’s necessity.

“We firmly believe that no child should go hungry in America and we ask that you amplify the importance of WIC among your faith-based community partners and congregations,” reads the letter.

“It would be a huge hit to our budget. We really appreciate that supplemental income on a monthly basis.”

The increased need for funding is partially the result of more eligible people signing up for the program, according to the USDA. This is in some ways a good thing, noted Bergh, as it indicates that WIC has become more accessible. The program used to require in-person appointments to enroll and receive benefits, but that stopped during the early COVID-19 pandemic when it began offering remote services.

The expansion in people signing up for WIC is also likely an indicator of just how desperately people need its services as food insecurity deepens. “We’re seeing the impacts of higher food costs. Families’ budgets have been stretched,” said Bergh. “In many cases, families who were receiving additional aid from other programs during the pandemic have now seen those pandemic measures expire.”

The ongoing uncertainty surrounding WIC’s future has left many of its participants worried and unable to fully plan for their families’ futures.

“On average, we’re talking about $80 to $100 a month as far as what that does for our food budget,” said Emily Church, a current WIC participant living in Ohio who also serves on the National WIC Association’s participant advisory council. She is raising a toddler and teenage son, while working and attending school. “It would be a huge hit to our budget. We really appreciate that supplemental income on a monthly basis.”

“I am fearful of how this is all going to shake out,” said Church, before pausing to check on her 3-year-old daughter. It’s her health and well-being, in her formative years of growth as a toddler, that concerns Church the most.

“I feel frustration and anger over the fact that this is even a question,” said Church, getting back on the call, as her daughter could still be heard in the background.

Meanwhile, lawmakers struck a deal to bring back the child tax credit, a pandemic-era support that provided relief for low-income families and ended in 2021. If the tax breaks are resurrected, it could go part of the way toward helping some families feed their children.

Read more:
Changes to WIC Benefits Would Cut Food Access for Millions of Parents
Do Regulations Designed to Promote Nutrition Make WIC Food Lists Too Restrictive?

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Farmworker Women’s Rights: The next farm bill may shape the rights of women farmworkers. The sweeping, trillion-dollar legislative package, reauthorized every five years, has been extended for another year as Congress continues to debate the next version of the legislation. Historically, farmworker and labor rights have been excluded from the bill, but there has been a recent concerted effort among advocates to change that.

In mid-January, a group of women with Alianza Nacional de Campesinas traveled to Washington, D.C., to push for the inclusion of their rights within the large bill. They met with members of Congress to discuss their proposals. Those include: stronger heat protections, more resources dedicated to farmworker housing, guaranteed funding of SNAP benefits regardless of immigration or visa status, more research into pesticides, the development of a fully staffed farmworker office within USDA, and resources to assist farmworkers with transitioning to farm ownership.

“Our journey to Washington, D.C., underscores the urgency of necessary resources and acknowledgement of farmworker needs, particularly women and girls, in the upcoming farm bill,” said Alianza’s Executive Director Mily Trevino-Sauceda in a statement.

Read more:
The End of Roe vs. Wade Makes Reproductive Health Even Tougher for Farmworkers
Threatened by Climate Change, Food Chain Workers Demand Labor Protections
This Group Has Helped Farmworkers Become Farm Owners for More Than 2 Decades

Fertilizer Consolidation: The multinational giant Koch Industries recently acquired Iowa Fertilizer Co. for $3.8 billion, sparking outcry from advocates concerned about the increasing trend of consolidation within U.S. agriculture. Fertilizer prices have spiked in recent years due to inflation and rising gas prices, and the industry’s consolidation—furthered by this recent acquisition, advocates say—clamps down on competition that could drive down prices.

A recent letter, signed by 18 agriculture and environmental advocacy groups, called for a federal investigation into the acquisition. The letter notes that the fertilizer plant was first proposed in 2012 with the intent of lowering fertilizer costs and challenging the “Koch Industries dominance in the fertilizer markets,” while relying on substantial federal, state, and local funding to build the plant. “The unrestricted federal funds left the door open for Koch Industries to purchase the company just six years after the plant opened,” states the letter, delivered to the Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission.

Read more:
Health Concerns Grow as Oklahoma Farmers Fertilize Cropland with Treated Sewage
Excess Fertilizer Causes a New Challenge: Low Crop Yields During Drought
Why Seed Consolidation Matters

Grey Moran is a Staff Reporter for Civil Eats. Their work has appeared in The Atlantic, Grist, Pacific Standard, The Guardian, Teen Vogue, The New Republic, The New York Times, The Intercept, and elsewhere. Grey writes narrative-based stories about public health, climate change, and environmental justice, especially with a lens on the people working toward solutions. They live in New Orleans. Read more >

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  1. Why all the careful dancing around the fact that it’s Republicans that are doing this?

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