October 8, 2013 Liz Borkowski, MPH 0Comment

The government shutdown has cut off the flow of funds from USDA to WIC, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children. Some states have enough money to keep their programs running for a while, but Utah’s WIC clinic has already closed its doors to new clients as staff in the state are furloughed.

WIC serves approximately nine million low-income women and children. It provides vouchers for nutritious food (milk, cereal, vegetables, etc) and infant formula, counseling on healthy eating, breastfeeding support, and healthcare referrals. Zoë Neuberger and Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities write of WIC:

Extensive research shows that WIC participation contributes to healthier births, higher intake of key nutrients, less consumption of sugar and fats, and a stronger connection to preventive health care.[2]   It is widely regarded as one of the most effective of all social programs.

The research they cite on the impacts of WIC participation is located on the USDA website, so an attempt to access it yields only the message “Due to the lapse in federal government funding, this website is not available.”

For Forbes, Clare O’Connor spoke to some of the people trying to assure continued services to WIC clients:

So far the situation is most dire in Arkansas and Utah, according to Rev. Douglas Greenaway, who heads up nonprofit advocacy group the National WIC Association. Utah’s WIC program, which already serves 65,000 moms and babies, has now stopped accepting new participants.

“There are health consequences when mothers cannot provide food and nutrition for their kids,” said Rev. Greenaway. “There’ll be no infant formula and no breastfeeding support. If the baby doesn’t latch, that’s it.”

On Tuesday evening directors of WIC offices around the country stressed that they’re still up and running. Margaret Saunders, who oversees the program in Chicago and surrounding Cook County, hit the phones to allay the fears of panicked women.

“We have an active case load of 50,000 moms,” she said. “That’s a lot of people to reassure.”

Saunders described the government shutdown as adding insult to injury for an already vulnerable population.

“America is not realizing how many low-income pregnant women and children we have in this country,” she said. “They have no safety net. These women are trying to have a healthy pregnancy, and they’re asking, ‘how am I going to feed my family?’ It’s a terrifying moment, and it’s beyond my control. At our agency, we have no cushion. If our funding stream stops we will temporarily suspend service.”

WIC has typically had bipartisan support in Congress, and there seems to be broad agreement that nutrition for young children during important developmental stages is something worth investing in. But until Congress starts doing its job and allowing for federal spending again, vulnerable mothers of young children will have even less of a safety net than they usually do.

 Update, 10/10: North Carolina’s WIC office has also stopped issuing benefits (via CLASP).

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