The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program is facing the looming threat of substantial budget reductions. A federal nutrition program, WIC provides vital food assistance to over 6 million low-income women, infants, and children, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
To temporarily avoid a government shutdown, Congress passed a 45-day Funding Bill to allow maintain funding at current levels until November 17.
“If there is a shutdown, states will have to immediately shutdown the WIC fruits and vegetable plus-up and it will be devastating for participants and their budgets,” Geri Henchy, Director of Nutrition and Childhood Programs at the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC) tells Food Tank.
Lawmakers will have critical decisions to make over the next few weeks before the temporary federal funding is set to lapse.
“It’s particularly problematic that we keep having these stents of starting and stopping and it’s scary for the participants,” Henchy says.
The 2024 Appropriations Bill proposes funding that comes US$800 million under the amount needed to support everyone enrolled in WIC. Should they go into effect, these cuts would slash fruit and vegetable benefits for 5 million participants, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. They would also likely force eligible people onto waiting lists for the program.
“In the short term we will see waitlists greatly expand. While WIC funding is generally being protected, the current funding levels are simply not keeping up with increasing demand,” says Minerva Delgado, Director of Coalitions and Advocacy at the Alliance to End Hunger.
WIC is experiencing rapid increases in participation and earlier this year, surpassed the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) projected level for the 2024 fiscal year. “What is driving the rapid increase in WIC participation is the loss of other benefits and rising food costs, people are struggling,” Henchy tells Food Tank.
The WIC program supports an average of 6.2 million participants, according to the USDA. The pandemic, along with escalating food prices, only intensified the issue of hunger, leading millions of Americans to experience food insecurity and seek from food assistance programs.
“Poor nutrition leads to negative health outcomes, which can cause impact a child’s education for years, and even dangerous pregnancy complications for at-risk mothers,” says Minerva Delgado, Director of Coalitions and Advocacy at the Alliance to End Hunger.
During the pandemic, Congress increased WIC benefits to meet the recommended amount by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM). FRAC reports that these benefits have improved access for WIC families, improved financial stability, strengthened local economies, and improved the food environment.
“This benefit significantly helped mothers and babies increase nutritional intake, and the benefit cut will reverse this progress,” Delgado tells Food Tank.
Delgado believes that eaters can play an important role in influencing policymakers’ decisions around WIC funding. Advocates, particularly those with lived experience, can have a significant impact by speaking with legislators about the value of the program, she says.
“WIC is ultimately an investment in future generations, and ensuring it adequately reaches who it needs to reach should be a key pillar in American health and nutrition policy.”
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Photo courtesy of Rainier Ridao, Unsplash