The colorful cornucopia of fruits and vegetables found in grocery stores across the country could get much harder to afford for those in the Women, Infants and Children program, also known as WIC. A potential government shutdown is on the mind of Michael J. Wilson, who leads the nonprofit Maryland Hunger Solutions.
"I am worried about the potential impact on WIC," Wilson told Scripps News. "Knowing that if they don't do a full funding and take care of the business that's in front of them, that we really could have pregnant women and moms and children and babies being held hostage."
According to the USDA, in 2022, 6.3 million people benefited from the WIC program each month, including 39% of all infants in America, at an annual cost of $5.7 billion.
A government shutdown, though, would mean money would no longer flow into the program.
"That program expires, if you will, or stops immediately when the shutdown occurs," said Department of Agriculture Sec. Tom Vilsack. "We have a contingency fund at USDA that might continue it for a day or two. Some states may have leftover WIC benefits that have not been spent which could extend it for a week or so in that state, but the vast majority of WIC participants would see an immediate reduction and elimination of those benefits."
However, the program's problems run deeper, according to the National WIC Association.
"The Agriculture Appropriations bills, that are being considered in both the House and Senate, do not provide enough resources to serve projected caseloads," said Nell Menefee-Libey, the association's public policy manager. "And that's not even going near a continuing resolution or a possible shutdown."
Should a shutdown occur, any federal money for the program that is leftover at a state level will continue to be distributed until it runs out.
"It will be a rolling crisis, one state at a time and one family at a time," Menefee-Libey said. "And I'm concerned that that might mean that it slips under the radar."
That could potentially place added pressure on food banks, many of which are already straining because of inflation and declining donations.
"We know that the charitable food system, food pantries and food banks play a vital role," Wilson said. "I think for people who get in a very desperate situation, they should certainly avail themselves of that opportunity, but I don't want to make any mistake — the biggest player in the food system is the federal government."
For those who need the food provided by the WIC program, it can be a stressful time.
"Try to take a deep breath and do what you can to make sure that you're taking care of yourself and your family, but so much of this is out of our control," Wilson said. "This is in the control of our elected leaders."
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