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Underfunding WIC?

For each of the last 15 years, Presidents and Congresses of both parties have given the WIC nutrition program enough funding to serve all eligible low-income pregnant women, infants, and young children who apply.  Leaders of the current Congress have reiterated this commitment rhetorically.  But there are mounting questions as to whether they will live up to it, as our new report explains.

WIC — the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children — provides nutritious foods, counseling on healthy eating, and health care referrals to roughly 9 million low-income pregnant and postpartum women, infants, and children under age 5 who are at nutritional risk.  Extensive research shows that WIC improves birth outcomes, reduces child anemia, and improves participants’ nutrition and health.

The House-passed appropriations bill for fiscal year 2012 contains a large funding cut that would force WIC to turn away more than 700,000 eligible low-income women and young children next year.

The funding bill that the Senate Appropriations Committee approved earlier this month provides more than the House bill (though less than WIC received last year).  If food costs and WIC participation next year don’t exceed our projections, the Senate funding level would be enough to avoid turning people away, as long as the Agriculture Department also taps WIC’s contingency reserve.

But the latest data show that food costs have been rising rapidly — especially for milk and cheese, which account for about one-third of WIC’s food expenditures — and even small percentage differences in food price inflation have a big impact on WIC funding needs.  It may become clear in coming weeks that the Senate funding level, even with WIC’s contingency reserve, won’t be enough to avoid turning away eligible low-income women and children.

When Congress sets the final WIC funding level this fall, we urge lawmakers to use the most recent available data to ensure that WIC can continue the bipartisan tradition of serving all of the eligible low-income mothers and young children who apply.

More than one of every five American children lived in a household that was “food insecure” last year, meaning that it had difficulty affording sufficient food at some point during the year.  Congress should make sure it provides enough funding for WIC so as not to drive that number even higher.