- Rosemary Hunter, M.D., is a pediatrician in Nashville.
Imagine needing to load women and children into a boat to escape a bleak fate such as a remote island or sinking ship. Now imagine that instead of seeing how many could fit safely in the boat, folks attempted to poke holes in the boat or remove safety equipment. This is where we find ourselves in our current funding of the U.S. social safety net including the Supplemental Program for Nutrition for Women, Infants and Children (WIC).
WIC has been a successful program since its inception in the 1970s and has garnered bipartisan support for decades.
It is funded by the federal government and administered by the states. It supplies supplemental foods for low-income pregnant and breastfeeding women and infants and children under 5 years old at nutritional risk. It provides support with regular visits with a nutritionist to give guidance on ways to support healthy nutrition and crucial breastfeeding support for mothers.
WIC also provides a link to other services that participants are eligible for, including health care, dental care, and community referrals. WIC participants have proven benefits with improved birth weights of infants, reduced obesity in children, improved child development, improved diets of children and reduced anemia.
A minority of eligible Tennesseans participate in WIC. Here’s why.
As a pediatrician, I constantly work to guide patients and families in good nutrition, healthy discipline, disease prevention, and healthy lifestyle habits. However, there are often barriers to achieving these goals.
We regularly screen for food insecurity in the clinic in which I serve. In a recent Vanderbilt Child Health Policy poll, over 40% of those surveyed in Tennessee had food insecurity. Families can reduce some fixed costs, but everyone needs to eat. Families can alter what they eat to reduce costs, but you can only cut so much before your nutritional quality becomes very poor.
My passion in this area is why I am part of an endeavor to increase WIC enrollment across Tennessee with the Tennessee Justice Center and the WIC Community Innovation and Outreach Project.
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This grant supports efforts to increase awareness of WIC benefits and enroll those eligible for this proven program. Tennessee has one of the lowest levels of participation in the national WIC program.
Only 37% of WIC-eligible participants in Tennessee participate in the program. The various barriers to enrollment include misconceptions about eligibility, difficulty connecting to the program, the availability of WIC-eligible foods at the store, and other barriers.
Nearly 100,000 Tennessee women and children are at risk
One of the recent improvements was an expansion of the fruit and vegetable benefit in 2022 up to $25/month per child and $44/pregnant and post-partum women based on the recommendation of the National Academy of Sciences and Medicine.
Unfortunately, Congress’s recent proposed budgets would work directly against our efforts. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has recently published a report on the impact of potential cuts to the WIC program currently in the proposed House and Senate bills.
Approximately 97,200 Tennesseans would be harmed by the current House proposal budget cuts. The Tennessee WIC Champions group and other grantees nationwide are working hard to enroll eligible participants, and the congressional budget needs to increase to meet the need.
Just as in the crazy lifeboat scenario, we need to work together and not sabotage a good program’s effort. We need to support the nutrition of some of our most vulnerable members, women, and children and eliminate the potential budget cuts. I call upon our Tennessee House and Senate legislators to support the WIC program with appropriate funding as the most pro-family thing we could do.
Rosemary Hunter, M.D., is a pediatrician in Nashville.