WIC food assistance funding up for debate in Congress

It’s that time of year again. The Senate is back from its summer recess, and the mad dash is underway to avoid a government shutdown at the end of the month.

For the many programs subject to Congress’ annual appropriations process, eyes are on Capitol Hill to see what gets renewed, canceled, added or reduced in the negotiations.

As The Washington Post flagged, one program whose funding is in jeopardy is the Women, Infants, and Children food assistance program. Known as WIC, it covers pregnant and nursing women, infants and kids up to 5.

Like many federal assistance programs, WIC benefits were expanded early in the pandemic.

The Agriculture Department says that more than 6 million people use the program each month — more than Congress expected when it was budgeting for the 2024 fiscal year. Plus, there’s inflation, said Zoë Neuberger at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Higher food prices and the higher participation mean that more funding is needed than when the congressional appropriations process first started a few months ago,” she said.

In addition to determining overall funding, Congress has to decide whether to renew a boost in funds recipients can spend on fruits and vegetables, currently up to $25-$49 a month.

California mom Gina Day said the money helps her add variety to her meals for her family of six.

“This week alone, I snuck mushrooms into enchiladas with the chicken. My kids eat frozen peas as a snack on a regular basis,” she said.

She was surprised to hear those grocery funds were up for debate in Washington.

The White House is asking Congress for more money for the WIC program, but one bill in the House of Representatives would reduce WIC funds.

Kate Franken is board chair of the nonprofit National WIC Association and runs Minnesota’s WIC program, where they’re worried enough about funding to start dusting off decades-old contingency plans.

“We certainly don’t want to go that direction,” she said. “That means that eligible individuals seeking services will be waitlisted. And the first basically priority that that would impact would be postpartum women.”

States generally have enough WIC funds on hand to tide them over during brief lapses in federal funding. But a longer impasse could change the shopping habits of a lot of families quickly.

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