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WIC Needs Additional Funding to Avoid Forcing New Parents and Young Children Onto Waiting Lists

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) has a stellar record of improving participants’ health, in a cost-effective manner. For more than 25 years there’s been a bipartisan commitment to providing enough WIC funding through the annual appropriations process so that all the eligible families with low incomes who apply can be served while maintaining benefit levels. But the House Appropriations Committee is poised to consider a bill this week that would slash WIC’s fruit and vegetable benefits for 5 million participants and most likely force eligible people onto waiting lists.

The bill funds WIC at $800 million below the President’s budget request. The cut in the fruit and vegetable benefit goes against the recommendations of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS) to include more of these essential foods in the WIC food benefit. The cut would allow the inadequate funding level to cover more participants, but last month we warned that the bill’s funding is so low that waiting lists may be unavoidable. And the latest data now indicate that, even with the benefit cut (and WIC’s small contingency fund), the bill would very likely force eligible children and postpartum people onto waiting lists.

Monthly Department of Agriculture (USDA) data released last week, including on WIC participation and food costs in the first half of fiscal year 2023, confirm that to maintain the no-waitlist commitment and continue to provide the current science-based food benefits, WIC needs a funding increase — not just above the reduced level in the House bill but also very likely above the President’s budget request.

The funding level requested in the President’s budget — an increase of $615 million over the 2023 level — was sufficient to meet those goals when it was released, based on the data then available on participation and food costs. But with several months of additional data, it’s becoming apparent that WIC funding will very likely need to be higher than this to maintain benefits and avoid waiting lists. Before any final agriculture appropriations bill is enacted into law later this year, appropriators should ensure sufficient funding to meet both goals.

In recent years, WIC reached only about half of eligible low-income families, causing many families to miss out on the evidence-based benefits WIC provides. But WIC participation is starting to grow, a welcome development.

Participation grew steadily over the latter half of fiscal year 2022 and has continued to grow in fiscal year 2023. Average monthly participation for October 2022 through March 2023 was 4 percent higher than the same period in the prior fiscal year. And participation in the last quarter (January through March 2023) has already exceeded the level that USDA projected for all of fiscal year 2024 when the President’s budget was released.

The increase means more babies, toddlers, and new and expecting parents stand to benefit from WIC-associated improvements in birth outcomes, diet quality, child development, child immunization rates, and access to health care. This is very good news, but it means the program will need more resources to operate.

Several factors are likely driving the participation increase. Low-income families may be more likely to turn to WIC as higher food prices and the end of COVID-related increases to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits make it harder for them to afford groceries. The participation increase also reflects sound investments and policies at the federal and state levels over the past few years that have modernized the program and improved its food benefits.

In particular, Congress wisely followed the science and increased WIC’s fruit and vegetable benefits based on a 2017 NAS recommendation for the program to provide about half of the recommended daily amounts of fruits and vegetables for adults and children. The American Rescue Plan increased WIC’s fruit and vegetable benefits across the board. In subsequent appropriations bills, with bipartisan support Congress pivoted to providing the NAS-recommended fruit and vegetable amounts, which are tailored to the caloric needs of different categories of participants. And USDA is advancing rulemaking to make this science-based approach a permanent feature.

WIC food costs have been higher than expected in recent months — likely resulting from prices for WIC foods increasing more rapidly than usual, flexibilities offered to address the infant formula shortage that were recently phased out, and possibly participants using more of their WIC food benefits as they struggle to afford groceries. USDA data show that the average monthly WIC food cost per participant in the first half of fiscal year 2023 ($54.07) has already exceeded the estimate underlying the President’s budget request for fiscal year 2024 ($53.03), which seemed adequate when the budget was released.

As the appropriations process unfolds, it’s critical that policymakers adhere to their long-standing bipartisan commitment to serve all eligible applicants and also to maintain the science-based benefit package, including the current fruit and vegetable benefit. As more data become available over the coming months, USDA will be able to develop updated estimates of how much funding will be needed for policymakers to adjust funding levels before the appropriations process concludes.

Unfortunately, the bill advanced by the agriculture panel of the House Appropriations Committee backslides from the long-time, bipartisan commitment WIC has enjoyed. As noted, the bill funds WIC at $800 million below the President’s request and would slash the fruit and vegetable benefit for roughly 1.5 million pregnant, postpartum, and breastfeeding participants and 3.5 million children.

House Republicans have framed this as a decision that “returns WIC benefits provided during COVID to a normal level.” That mischaracterizes the long-recommended, science-based increase to the fruit and vegetable benefit as a temporary pandemic-related policy and ignores the bipartisan approval of funding this NAS-recommended benefit through the appropriations process for fiscal years 2022 and 2023.

And even with the benefit cut, the bill’s funding level is very likely insufficient to support the average monthly number of participants whom WIC has served in the last quarter. With participation likely to continue increasing due to the factors described above, the bill would very likely not ensure that all eligible individuals who apply or who need to recertify could be served. A funding shortfall that forces low-income people seeking support from WIC onto waiting lists would violate House Republicans’ stated commitment to “[e]nsuring that low-income Americans have access to nutrition programs.”

The House Appropriations subcommittee considered this bill before the debt ceiling agreement was completed. That agreement includes a higher overall funding level for the part of the budget that funds WIC (the non-defense discretionary part of the budget) than House appropriators likely assumed would be available. Although committee Republicans have indicated they won’t revisit their bills, they should reverse the damaging cut to the fruit and vegetable benefit and recommit to the basic premise that WIC should receive enough funding to serve all eligible families who seek help and to maintain the current science-based benefit package.