Shortfall of federal funding for food assistance could mean less support for struggling parents

A federal program offering nutritional support to pregnant women, new parents and children is facing a $1 billion shortfall in funding.

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) helps new parents purchase nutritious food for themselves and their young children. The program also offers breastfeeding counseling and benefits for formula for infants.

The WIC program serves more than 425,000 recipients in New York, according to the state Department of Health.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which oversees the federal program, estimated that the program would cost $6.3 billion in 2024. But government officials say with rising food costs and an increase in WIC participants, the program needs an additional $1 billion in funding to continue.

Congress has been deadlocked over whether to provide that funding in the latest farm bill. Experts say 2 million parents and young children could be kicked off the program because of the funding shortfall.

Christie Finch is the director of perinatal programs at Mothers & Babies Perinatal Network in Johnson City. The organization connects families and new parents across the Southern Tier with services.

Finch said a majority of parents the organization’s community health workers connect to services are eligible for WIC. Because WIC benefits are only meant to be supplemental, Finch said families have to find a way to fill the gap. And with rising costs, she’s seen that only get harder.

“Families are desperate, sometimes they water down their formula to make ends meet, sometimes they go longer times in between [feedings],” Finch said. “For the families that we work with, we… obviously advise against that. And we try to help them find other ways that they can supplement their budgets.”

Studies have shown that in its 50-year history, WIC benefits have led to a decrease in premature births and infant deaths, as well as savings in health care costs. Finch said most local programs are able to get benefits to eligible families fairly quickly. But she worries about the potential for long wait times if the program is not fully funded.

“Even with the WIC program as it is, families are still struggling and having difficulty making those ends meet and getting what they need,” Finch said. “So I can’t imagine what they would do. They would be desperate, even more desperate than they are now.”

Last week, Democrats on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce pushed for an agreement that would fully fund the program. U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) called on lawmakers last month to address the funding shortfall.

“With grocery prices still high and maternal and infant mortality on the rise, now is not the time to be further disrupting critical nutrition assistance programs for the most vulnerable Americans,” Gillibrand said.

The New York Department of Health said in a statement that it does not comment on ongoing federal budget negotiations, but pointed out that waitlists have not been used by the state program in almost 30 years.

“Through the state’s continued partnership with the USDA and our dedicated county health departments, we remain committed to ensuring thousands of families across New York have access to healthy, nutritious food with a focus on improving health equity,” state health Commissioner Dr. James McDonald said in a statement.

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