Vulnerable mothers fear shutdown threat to WIC food aid

Discretionary program provides low-income mothers with food vouchers, health care referrals, faces funding gap

Vouchers from the $7 billion-a-year WIC program cover items such as infant formula.
Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

“Right now it really won’t make a difference,” said Alexandra Lopez, 33, on her way out of Woodhull Medical Center, a public hospital in Brooklyn. “But when the baby comes … (formula) milk is really expensive.”

Lopez was talking about the benefits she receives from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children — better known as WIC — at Woodhull. WIC is one of the social welfare programs put at risk by the government shutdown and budget impasse in Congress.

“It is one of the programs most vulnerable because it’s a domestic discretionary program,” said the Rev. Douglas A. Greenaway, president of the National WIC Association. “We’re not an entitlement program like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) or school lunch.”

Lopez’s baby is not due until February, long after Congress is likely to come to a resolution. But her situation underscores how much timing plays into the budget uncertainty that has so many government programs scrambling.

“What we’re hearing from states, some states think they’ll be able to operate through the month of October. A couple, possibly early November,” Greenaway said. “A couple appear to be able to operate a couple of weeks. And a handful of states for a week.”

He said that Arkansas and Utah are two of the most vulnerable states, and that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has $125 million in contingency funds that can be used to support those states.

WIC is a $7 billion-a-year program that provides low-income mothers across the country with food vouchers — for specific items such as baby formula, milk, bread, cheese, fruit and peanut butter — as well as nutrition and breast-feeding counseling, and health care referrals. It is widely regarded as a successful, cost-effective social program that prevents nutrition-related health problems like anemia, low birth weight, preterm births, fetal mortality, and childhood obesity and diabetes.

The program falls under the USDA, whose website went offline shortly after the shutdown. But a Contingency and Reconstitution Plan, released by the USDA last week, stated: “No additional federal funds would be available to support the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC)’s clinical services, food benefits and administrative costs.”

About 9 million Americans are enrolled in WIC, which is limited to low-income pregnant, postpartum or breast-feeding mothers, infants, and children under 5 who are at nutritional risk.

In New York, where a half million people are enrolled, participants typically receive about $70 each month in food vouchers.

Onessa Burke, 21, is one of them. She studies social work but has taken the semester off. Standing outside the hospital, she says WIC has also helped her learn how to breast-feed properly.

“I was clueless because this was my first,” she said. “They teach you how to hold the baby, how to help him latch to the nipple. It looks easy, but it’s really hard. He wasn’t latching because I didn’t even know how to hold him.”

Audrey Hendricks, 22, and her husband, Nahiem, 28, pushed their 9-month-old son past Woodhull. Although they were not stopping for an appointment, they said they too are enrolled at the WIC office there.

The most essential benefits for them are the vouchers to purchase the Enfamil Gentlease formula their son’s sensitive stomach needs. At the Walgreen’s across the street from the hospital, the powder formula retails for $17.99.

“I would be upset,” Audrey Hendricks said of the possibility of losing her WIC benefits. “That’s a lot of money to spend just on milk.” She says they buy three or four containers a week.

“We’d have to do a whole other recalibration of our spending,” Nahiem Hendricks said. The first cutback, they agreed, would be money spent taking their four kids out for family activities. A fifth child is on the way.

Although WIC offices were operating without a budget in sight, calls and visits to several New York offices on Tuesday morning showed WIC representatives and supervisors not too alarmed — yet.

They were taking a wait-and-see approach.

A memo sent out by the New York State Department of Health advised WIC offices to “continue operations as usual” while they worked to get more answers.

“Everybody that’s scheduled, they’re coming in,” said Maribel Feliciano, a patient service representative at the Institute for Family Health WIC office in Manhattan. 

Sidney Rosenfeld, director of the Oda-WIC program in Brooklyn, said he too received the memo.

“Right now we’re continuing as usual,” he said, but added, “I hope it will be settled before tomorrow.”

Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, was more urgent.

“One of the things you’re seeing is just confusion reigning,” he said. “If something is two to three days, you can fudge over every problem. If it’s two to three weeks, you’re going to see massive problems, and I predict in some states those clinics will absolutely be closed.”

He said many people do not worry because they assume it will work out fine.

“Occasionally, Chicken Little is right,” he said.

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