WIC extension led to fewer hungry kids; will it continue?

Health
A mother holds a baby drinking a bottle.

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(NewsNation) — The rate at which families reported they couldn’t afford groceries managed to hold steady from 2019 to 2021, reports say, even though a pandemic, record inflation and supply chain issues made things like baby formula scarce.

Lorrene Ritchie said an influx of cash into a federal nutrition program targeting babies and kids is likely partly responsible for those numbers, released last month by the USDA. Ritchie’s team at the Nutrition Policy Institute interviewed hundreds of participants in WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children). 

“(The extended benefit) gives us enough to buy other things we need to,” one mother told her team. Their report keeps respondents anonymous. “If we don’t have money for fruit, we don’t have enough to get chicken, or meat, or ham that (the children) want, or bread and other things you need at home.”

Yet unless the federal government takes action by the end of the year, the program will revert to $9 per month per kid, an amount many experts say was already too low before the pandemic. The decision Congress will make in December has the potential to impact millions of families.

“Nine dollars is almost nothing, just one container of grapes or strawberries or watermelon,” another parent said.

Less funding, tougher choices

The WIC program is unique among federal nutrition programs in that it targets the point in time when healthy calories matter the most to moms and children.

Because it provides nutrition to both low- and medium-income families, about half of all infants and 25% of children under the age of five are on WIC. A healthy diet is linked to long-term child and mother health.

“It’s always important to eat healthy, but it’s rarely more important than when you are pregnant or shortly thereafter,” said Matt Schulz, Chief Credit Analyst at LendingTree.

A recent LendingTree study analyzed how families use the additional fruit and vegetable benefits, which jumped from $9 per child, per month, to $24. Pregnant and postpartum participants receive about $45 per month per child. 

Researchers found that without the expanded amount, children will receive about 50% less produce calories — and pregnant or postpartum women will lose more than 70%. 

“Low-income folks in America have a razor-thin financial margin for error in the best of times,” Schulz said. “In times of record inflation, that margin for error goes to zero, and people have to make tough choices.”

Going up just $15 a month per child may not sound like much, Ritchie said, but for many young families, it adds up, especially if there are multiple young children in the program. 

Parents said the program not only allowed their kids to eat more and a greater variety of produce, but helped parents save money for other rising costs, like transportation or electric bills. 

“It literally comes down to, ‘Can I afford to buy fresh produce? Or can I afford to bring in as much food as I need to for my family?’” Schulz said. “(Parents) have to make sacrifices from elsewhere.”

Despite high inflation, less hunger

Experts say the extended benefits more than kept pace with inflation and significantly reduced food insecurity, which has remained virtually unchanged since 2019. Compare that to the Great Recession “when the share of food-insecure households rose from 11.1% in 2007 to 14.7% in 2009 amid a less robust policy response.”

A number of policy experts and advocates are calling Congress to reevaluate the cash amount families receive post-pandemic. Instead, lawmakers may increase the cash benefit and reduce another part of the WIC program, Ritchie said.

It cost taxpayers an extra $880 million to expand access to WIC during the pandemic, but the investment pays off long-term. WIC is associated with a $100 reduction in Medicaid costs per newborn.

The continuation of that higher cash benefit is particularly important, Ritchie added.

With the higher amount, the proportion of families reporting the benefit was “not enough” decreased from 89% to 23%, while the ratio saying it was “just right” increased from 7% to 73%, according to her surveys of parents.

Despite the education, referrals to doctors and other support parents receive, the Nutrition Policy Institute’s research shows families will be less likely to stick with the program if the previous amount returns. 

Some say this could help increase participation of families from rural areas, who are less educated, who don’t have consistent internet access or who don’t speak English — all challenges that currently limit engagement.

“The cost of everything has gone up over the past year plus, in ways we haven’t seen in decades,” Schulz said. “Unfortunately, it’s going to lead to a lot of folks buying a lot less produce. And that probably means eating a lot less healthy than they should.”

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