Nearly 7 million mothers and their children could lose the nutrition assistance they receive from the federal government if Congress fails to reach a deal this week to avert a government shutdown, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters during a White House press briefing on Monday afternoon that the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, commonly known as WIC, would stop immediately if the government shuts down.
"That program expires, if you will, or stops immediately when the shutdown occurs," Vilsack said.
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According to USDA, the WIC program provides healthcare services and nutrition to low-income pregnant women, breastfeeding women and children under the age of 5, including foods that are rich in protein, calcium, iron, vitamins A and C, and important nutrients for infants and mothers like dairy products, whole wheat bread, rice, peanut butter and legumes. Its services also include access to nutrition education, breastfeeding education and support, as well as vouchers to purchase WIC-approved fresh fruits and vegetables.
Vilsack said that the USDA has a contingency fund set up that could potentially fund the WIC program for a day or two after a potential shutdown and said that some states might have access to remaining WIC funds and may be able to extend the program for about a week.
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack answers questions during the daily press briefing at the White House on Sept. 25, 2023 in Washington, DC.Win Mcnamee/Getty Images
But the secretary warned that a shutdown would have "real consequences to real people in a real way," and a potential shutdown would impact the program's participants.
"The vast majority of WIC participants would see an immediate reduction and elimination of those benefits, which means the nutrition assistance that's provided would not be available," he said.
According to the USDA, the WIC program served about 6.3 million participants each month in 2022, including about 39% of all infants in the United States.
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According to a February 2023 report released by The National WIC Association — a nonprofit that supports the WIC program, WIC has seen a 12% nationwide increase in child participation following expanded access to remote services during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The White House called on Congress last month to consider a short-term measure that would give lawmakers more time to reach a deal and provide additional funds to programs that would be impacted by a potential shutdown — with a request for $1.4 billion for WIC to provide nutritional assistance to low-income families.
File image of Kenya Pierce’s children Dannon, 12, and Nairobi, 7, quietly working at their table in their home on April 28, 2020, in Richmond, Calif. Pierce, who formally worked for WIC for nine years, was then receiving WIC benefits.Yalonda M. James/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images, FILE
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According to the USDA, the WIC program cost about $5.7 billion in the year 2022.
The National WIC Association backed the Biden Administration's call for additional funds and said in a statement on Aug. 31 that participation in the program is "surging," while food pieces remain high, so "it is essential that WIC receives enough funding to ensure that no one eligible for the program is turned away."
Congress has not reached a deal yet to fund the government past Sept. 30 and unless lawmakers reach a deal this week, the federal government is set to shut down on Oct. 1.
The National WIC Association released a statement on Friday, calling for additional investment in the program.
A woman reaches for a prepared milk baby bottle while holding a newborn.STOCK PHOTO/Getty Images
"Without the urgent investment of additional funds, state WIC offices could soon be forced to consider waiting lists for prospective participants — a drastic step not seen in nearly 30 years," Kate Franken, board chair of the National WIC Association, said in the statement. "We simply cannot cross that line. Congress must live up to its responsibility to all those who depend on the program, providing sufficient funding in a continuing resolution to ensure no one is turned away from WIC in the short term and full funding in a year-end spending package to support WIC's critical mission moving forward."
Unlike WIC, which is a discretionary grant program that is funded on an annual basis, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — formerly known as "food stamps" — which provides food assistance to low income families, is authorized as mandatory spending.
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Vilsack said that the SNAP program, which serves about 40 million people facing food insecurity, would continue through at least through the month of October if the government shuts down.
"Now if the shutdown were to extend longer than that, there would be some serious consequences to SNAP," Vilsack said.