Shutdown puts WIC food program for vulnerable mothers at risk

Jason Sickles, Yahoo
Yahoo News

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A WIC-only store in Dallas provides healthy foods for mothers and their young children. (Jason Sickles/Yahoo)


DALLAS — In a shopping center parking lot 1,300 miles from Washington’s bureaucracy and bickering, teen mom Karina Luciano loaded a watermelon and baby formula into her car.

Luciano didn’t realize the federal assistance program that just purchased the food items for her children, Aimee, 2, and Jaiden, 11 months, is now in jeopardy because of the government shutdown.

“Oh my god, I think I’m going to cry,” Luciano said upon learning the news. “This is really bad.”

Nearly 9 million low-income mothers and children receive benefits under the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children. Congress’ inability to pass a funding bill forced the USDA, which oversees the $7 billion program, to shutter support for WIC’s clinical services, food and administrative costs.

“Due to the lapse in federal government funding, this website is not available,” read a message on the WIC page of USDA.gov.

The defunding, which doesn't affect USDA programs for school lunches and food stamps, is already producing consequences across the country.

Late on Tuesday, WIC officials in Utah closed all offices and canceled appointments until the federal government resumes operations.

“Utah WIC checks for the month of October are still being accepted at WIC authorized grocery stores,” the Utah Department of Health wrote on its website.

Meanwhile, the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals said no new WIC applicants will be accepted but that benefits will continue for current participants.

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Closure message on Utah WIC's website. (Health.utah.gov)

“Based upon the new federal guidance, it is estimated that the program can continue to operate with these modifications for the next two weeks,” the agency's website said.

In Texas, WIC is administered by the Department of State Health Services. A spokesperson said there have been no program changes and that they have enough in reserves to keep them afloat.

“However, if the shutdown continues, we could have some issues in the coming weeks,” Christine Mann told Yahoo News.

If so, 18-year-old Luciano fears a setback. She just landed a part-time job as a restaurant cashier and has been trying to save to go to college.

“It will really put me behind,” she said. “I would have to buy all the formula. One can is almost $16.”

Douglas Greenaway, head of an advocacy nonprofit called National WIC Association, said many mothers will be caught off guard when funds dry up in their states.

“Most of these moms have really challenged lives,” Greenaway said. “They are balancing a lot of priorities, and they may not be tuned in to what Congress is or isn’t doing.”

Greenaway spent Tuesday on conference calls brainstorming strategies to help states stretch what dollars they have left. He estimates WIC programs will survive for one to six weeks.

“But it could be a matter of days in a handful of states,” he told Yahoo News. Because the situation remains fluid, he declined to name the most at-risk states.

Late on Tuesday, the Arkansas WIC program, which serves nearly 68,000 participants, announced that emergency funds from a USDA contingency account helped it avoid closure for a week.

Even a temporary suspension, Greenaway said, would send the wrong message and could lead to higher medical costs.

“Without WIC nutrition assistance there could be some tremendously unfortunate health outcomes,” he said. “WIC is an absolute critical safety for pregnant moms and their children.”

Luciano said her experience with WIC staff is one of the reasons she wants to someday become a nurse.

“This program is a great help to poor people who can’t afford things,” Luciano said. “It’s very educational and helps teenage moms. Not having it is going to hurt a lot of families.”

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