Balancing Budgets by Emptying Bellies: WIC Cuts Would Harm Our Youngest Children | The Brink

Balancing Budgets by Emptying Bellies: WIC Cuts Would Harm Our Youngest Children

A federal nutrition program that helps millions access healthy food is being threatened by congressional Republicans—here’s why it’s worth saving

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) provides food, healthcare referrals, breastfeeding support, and nutrition education for over six million people. BU researcher Cristina Gago says underfunding the program would be devastating for families and kids. Photo via iStock/FatCamera

As Congress approaches its annual deadline to pass a new federal budget, a slew of spending bills from House Republicans threaten to gut evidence-based safety net programs. The latest targets: babies, children, new moms, and pregnant women. 

For over 40 years, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) has provided food, healthcare referrals, breastfeeding support, and nutrition education for income-eligible pregnant and postpartum women, infants, and children up to age five. In 2022, WIC served more than 6 million participants nationwide (115,000 in Massachusetts alone), with nearly one in every two infants qualifying across the country. 

Recognizing the profound reach and impact of WIC, much of my doctoral work centered around identifying the barriers those eligible face in staying enrolled and accessing benefits. Five years and several studies later, I find my appreciation for WIC has only grown, as has my eagerness to identify actionable means of making it more accessible for those that need it most. 

For that reason, the Republican-advanced House Bill 4368 is all the more devastating. If passed with the federal budget, it would slash fruit and vegetable benefits by 56 to 70 percent, taking healthy food off the table for over 85,000 people across Massachusetts. Overall funding cuts in the bill would also lead to 12,900 people in Massachusetts missing out on WIC benefits altogether, resulting in WIC waitlists for the first time in more than 25 years. The proposal would also override US Department of Agriculture decision-making about WIC-eligible foods, undermining the science-based integrity of the program.

Having analyzed interview data from dozens of WIC-eligible parents in Massachusetts myself, I’ve heard repeatedly about the incredible impact these benefits—especially the vouchers for fruits and vegetables—provide for families’ health. Though nearly every WIC-eligible parent we interviewed expressed the need for WIC support in meeting household grocery needs, some went on to say that they disenrolled early to allow space for others who needed it more, even though funding levels at the time could serve all eligible families. Cutting WIC funding could exacerbate this dangerous sense of scarcity, dissuading eligible families from accessing important benefits. All those eligible should have access, without concern that they are taking resources from another. 

These cuts would come at a particularly devastating time. Historically high inflation and rising food prices have made essential groceries unaffordable for many families. Consequently, as of March 2023, one in three households reported food insecurity in Massachusetts—nearly double the pre-pandemic estimate. While the bipartisan Senate version of the spending bill protects the value of fruit and vegetable benefits and integrity of the food packages, recent participation trends indicate that it too would fall short of supporting all eligible families

Decades of robust data collected by Children’s HealthWatch, a national network of pediatricians and child health researchers headquartered at Boston Medical Center [Boston University’s primary teaching hospital], and others, also underscore the benefits of WIC participation. They include healthier birth weights, improved food security and diet quality, as well as healthier cognitive, motor, and socioemotional skills. This is particularly true for Black and Latina moms, with WIC playing a critical role in closing well-documented inequities in maternal and child health outcomes by race and ethnicity. Better still, benefits don’t stop once children age out. Instead, those enrolled go on to demonstrate improved outcomes compared with their income-eligible, non-enrolled peers later in life. As a result, it’s estimated that every dollar spent on WIC returns an impressive $2.48 saved in healthcare costs and more than a dollar on other government spending programs down the line. 

WIC also benefits broader communities by shaping healthier food economies. In supporting healthy food purchases from local WIC-authorized retailers, WIC incentivizes hundreds of thousands of stores countrywide to offer affordable, healthy food options for local consumers. My own research in Massachusetts revealed that increases to WIC’s fruit and vegetable allowances during COVID, based on the cost of affording a healthy diet, resulted in parents purchasing a greater quantity and quality of fruits and vegetables. This meant they could eat more personally and feed more to their young children while spending less out of pocket. 

Though the harmful, partisan House bill failed to reach a floor vote before Congress broke for August recess, members have now returned to D.C. to take up the bill and other appropriations again. In Massachusetts, we are lucky to have a delegation of anti-hunger advocates and organizations like Children’s HealthWatch, fighting to protect WIC and other child nutrition programs.

We cannot allow a bill to pass that takes food off the table for mothers and children or creates unprecedented waitlists. Doing so would not only hurt WIC-eligible families today, but it will also carry lasting harm across the lives of thousands of young children and parents for years to come.

Cristina Gago recently joined the Boston University School of Public Health community health sciences department. She researches community health, social service interventions, and nutrition assistance programs, such as WIC.

Stephanie Ettinger de Cuba, Charlotte Bruce, and Deborah A. Frank all contributed to this article.

“Expert Take” is a research-led opinion page that provides commentaries from BU researchers on a variety of issues—local, national, or international—related to their work. Anyone interested in submitting a piece should contact [email protected]The Brink reserves the right to reject or edit submissions. The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not intended to represent the views of Boston University.

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