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Shutdown Leaves Program Feeding Women And Infants In Lurch

Among those affected by the chaos of the government shutdown are 9 million low-income women and children who may be worrying where next week's meal is going to come from.

They rely on the government for food assistance through the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, known as WIC.

And according to Douglas Greenaway, president and CEO of the National WIC Association, some of the state programs that serve these women and children may run out of money by next week, while others may have enough funds to offer the food benefits through the end of the month. But across the country, he says, anxiety is rising as both program administrators and participants wonder how long they'll be in limbo.

"When Congress fails to act to fund programs like WIC that serve people in need, it just places vulnerable women and children in very precarious positions," Greenaway tells The Salt.

As the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which funds the program, explained Friday in a memo, the 10,000 WIC clinics around the country will have enough funds to operate for a week or so. And after that, the states most in need may be able to get something from the federal pot of $125 million in contingency funding.

The food benefits average about $45 a month, and are given in one- to three-month increments, depending on the severity of the women's situation. Benefits include vouchers to purchase whole grains, fruits and vegetables, fish, dairy and dairy substitutes, and infant formula. To qualify for the program, women and their young children have to have acute nutritional deficits.

"Every little bit helps," says Abby Hyde, a WIC recipient in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and mother of a 1-1/2-year-old girl. "Everything costs so much these days. Everything's going up: milk, cereal ... For low-income families, we really, really need [this program] for children."

WIC programs are run by states that receive grants from the federal government, and Greenaway says he's not yet sure which states will be especially pinched. But the Huffington Post was reporting Tuesday afternoon that the Utah WIC program said it would not be taking any new clients, though people already in the program would continue to receive benefits during the shutdown.

"Everything suggests that this is going to be a longer siege than we would hope for," says Greenaway. "The most important thing is for participants to check with their local agency program to make sure benefits are available to them."

WIC, of course, is not the only federal food assistance that millions of Americans depend on. USDA is also responsible for funding the food stamp program, officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which provides 48 million Americans with vouchers they exchange for food. Its funding situation is not quite as tenuous as that of WIC — USDA says it has enough money to continue operating SNAP through the month of October.

The shutdown is also affecting other government programs integral to the food system, including many of the Food and Drug Administration's food safety programs.

"FDA will also have to cease safety activities such as routine establishment inspections, some compliance and enforcement activities, monitoring of imports, notification programs (e.g., food contact substances, infant formula), and the majority of the laboratory research necessary to inform public health decision-making," the Department of Health and Human Services reported.

For its part, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it will continue "minimal support" for its PulseNet program, which tracks foodborne diseases across the states.

A few people may get a tasty perk out of the shutdown. As the Washington City Paper reports, dozens of bars and restaurants around the city are offering drink and food specials this week. It's a nice gesture from the D.C. restaurant community, but is unlikely to benefit anyone on public food assistance.

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