The U.S. government shutdown may be keeping National Parks closed and furloughed federal workers at home, but worse real-world effects could soon be felt by low-income mothers and their infants — already a marginalized group with unstable food supplies.
On Tuesday, the government stopped funding the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC.
Over 8.9 million moms and kids under five living near or below the poverty line rely on the program’s supplemental vouchers for healthy food, breastfeeding support, infant formula and other necessities dispensed at clinics nationwide.
The USDA estimates that most states will be able to continue WIC operations as usual for “a week or so” before running out of money. The department’s Food and Nutrition Service has a contingency fund of only $125 million available for this $7 billion annual appropriation.
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.”
For Judy Fedie in Wisconsin’s Chippewa Falls office, the phones rang more than usual on Tuesday as shutdown news spread, but it’s business as usual for now. “We know our time is limited, and we’re waiting to hear from the state,” she said.
“I’m worried about a number of things, but top of the list is babies not getting breast milk. In Wisconsin, a can of formula costs $15 and it will maybe last three days. I worry families will be forced to make tough choices about how to feed their babies.”
She added that lactation specialists can be hard to come by in rural parts of the country like her town, which has a population of 60,000. Of those, about 1,250 rely on WIC.
“Small town America doesn’t have a lot of these resources,” she said. “Our WIC clinics are the first places women will go. We have hospital breast pumps here. We have support for babies with special needs. These aren’t available easily in some communities.”
Stacey Ninness at Oklahoma City’s WIC office concurred. She sees about 5,000 moms each month, many of whom have no other access to medical instruments for help with breastfeeding. “We’re going to see a huge impact with hunger,” she said. “These women can’t afford formula.”
Because women on WIC have to attend regular nutrition classes in order to obtain food vouchers, Ninness worries her social workers might miss signs of iron deficiencies or even child abuse as clinics close their doors. She added that her office provides special baby formulas that aren’t readily available elsewhere for kids with illnesses or allergies.
“This is a program that serves people already affected by food instability,” she said. “We’re just trying to get everyone in as quickly as possible.”
For Rev. Greenaway at the National WIC Association, the government shutdown is already causing a crisis of confidence among moms in the program.
“The most important thing here is that WIC moms feel vulnerable in their own circumstances,” he said. “They trust WIC, and this situation is undermining their trust. Participants — pregnant, post-partum, breastfeeding, with kids up to five — are already making that self-selecting decision not to go to their clinics even though many are open.”
The confusion doesn’t end there. Department heads are fielding phone calls from grocery store owners worried they won’t be reimbursed if they continue to accept WIC vouchers.
“There’s probably six billion and change in food dollars spent in the retail grocery community every year,” said Rev. Greenaway. “So there’s a cost to businesses.”
USDA communications director Bruce Alexander told Forbes that the department is working with agencies at state level to continue providing benefits until funds run out.
“The Food and Nutrition Service will be allocating both contingency and carryover funds to state agencies for use in operating their fiscal year 2014 WIC program, in addition to other available funds,” he said. “Should a lapse extend through late October, federal WIC funding may not be sufficient to cover benefits.”