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Governors’ Coronavirus Plans Must Protect Nutrition for Pregnant Women, Young Children

March 18, 2020 at 9:15 AM

Governors can use the flexibility that the pending Families First Coronavirus Response Act would give them to ensure that WIC benefits remain accessible even if COVID-19 concerns keep WIC clinics closed or parents away. The bill, already passed by the House, is expected to be enacted this week.

States are already using their existing flexibility under other nutrition programs to provide meals to school-aged children even with schools closed — rightly so, given concerns that children continue to receive adequate nutrition while we slow the spread of COVID-19. State policymakers can similarly ensure that through WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children), pregnant women, babies, and toddlers who need to stay safe still get critical nutrition assistance, especially as worsening economic conditions pose threats to low-income families.

WIC usually requires applicants or families that are recertifying for benefits to attend an in-person appointment in a WIC clinic. But, during this pandemic, it may be inadvisable to keep clinics open and risky for some families to go to them even if they remain open.

WIC already gives states some flexibility to support clients who need to delay an appointment, but states need more flexibility to address a crisis of this magnitude. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act would provide $500 million in additional funding and important flexibility to help serve eligible families through WIC. (It also would let child care providers that close their facilities continue to provide meals in a non-congregate setting.)

The measure would let states seek a federal waiver to enroll new families or recertify current enrollees without an in-person appointment and defer obtaining the height, weight, and bloodwork information that program administrators typically use to tailor the foods and nutrition education that WIC provides. Moreover, it would let states request a waiver of any rule that they determine is impeding assistance.

Once policymakers enact the bill, state officials can immediately:

  • Seek waivers of the physical presence requirement for certification and recertification appointments;
  • Seek waivers to extend certification periods to keep issuing benefits while staff develop the capacity to offer telephone or video certification appointments; and
  • Identify and seek waivers for any additional rules that are impeding service or for any requirements that are not feasible to meet.

It’s important for state policymakers to act quickly to seek these new flexibilities because gaps in adequate nutrition in early childhood can have lasting consequences. WIC provides nutritious foods that fill gaps in the diets of low-income women and young children, along with nutrition education, breastfeeding support, and referrals to health care or social services. WIC participation improves low-income families’ nutrition and health at a critical stage of development, a substantial body of research shows, leading to healthier babies, more nutritious diets, better health care for children, and higher academic achievement for students.

Nationwide, nearly 25 percent of children between ages 1 and 4 participate in WIC, as do nearly half of all infants (45 percent as of 2017), many of whom rely on the infant formula that the program provides. Thus, it’s important to keep WIC running even when families or staff should not be in a WIC clinic. WIC can shore up nutrition for low-income families with young children, including families that face a sharp income decline due to the pandemic’s economic effects.

Making sure that WIC participants continue to receive benefits and that newly eligible families can enroll without going to a clinic is a sound public health policy that will maintain vital nutrition assistance and reduce young children’s exposure to COVID-19. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act would build on existing flexibilities, and we encourage all states to fully use the new waiver options to provide critical nutrition assistance to low-income families with pregnant women or young children during this pandemic.


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