Poor nutrition

Vital program for moms and kids under siege

by Hugh Biggar
December 12, 2011
News & Review

A popular program to help Sacramento-area women and children with basic nutritional needs is on Congress’ chopping block.

The program, the Special Supplement Nutrition Program for Women, more commonly known as WIC, escaped a close call this month when Congress approved its funding for 2012. However, as a federal grant program, its long-term future could be in jeopardy due to failed Congressional Supercommittee efforts to reduce the deficit.

“There is an ugly new tone in the debate,” said Laurie True, director of the California WIC Association in Davis, “and without increased revenue WIC is vulnerable.”

Run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, WIC provides nutritional support to low-income women, infants and children. In the Sacramento area, roughly 60,000 are enrolled, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And, at a time when roughly one in three children is living in poverty according to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 60 percent of infants born in California take part in WIC according to the state’s public-health department.

Meanwhile, the California Department of Public Health reports that 60 percent of all infants born in California participate in WIC.

“I don’t know what I would do without my WIC,” said Cassandra Young, a 43-year-old grandmother of two, while shopping at a Target. “It helps me get my milk and diapers for the grandchildren.”

In addition to milk and diapers, the federal program also provides participants with basic food, such as milk and bread, breast-feeding support, and, if needed, infant formula until a child’s first birthday.

With academic studies showing infant eating habits can be a major determinant in long-term health (and health-care costs), WIC also aims to instill healthy eating habits through nutritional counseling and cannot be used to buy soda or junk food.

For Sacramento County and California, it has also been a rare social-services success story. Unlike the federal food-stamp program—which serves less than half or those eligible in the state—about 60 percent of those who qualify for Sacramento County’s WIC program take part.

“We have people who have never gotten social services before but have their income drop or been furloughed,” said Julie Campbell, a clinic manager for Sacramento County.

“But many moms who may be working do not know they are eligible, or about our breastfeeding support services.”

Those numbers have also juiced the local economy: The flow of federal dollars through the WIC program generates an estimated $90 million each month to California retail stores—40 percent of which are small businesses. Additionally, a rebate program with infant-formula manufacturers also earns California about $18.5 million each month.

Even so, Congress nearly killed a portion of WIC funding this month. Since the program is part of discretionary grant funding, unlike food stamps and school-lunch initiatives, Congress considered cutting part of it for 2012, including dropping about 111,000 people in California. However, WIC was ultimately fully funded at $6.6 billion.

The collapse of the Supercommittee, though, makes its long-term funding less certain.

“WIC is not exempt from [required] sequestration cuts,” True explained of automatic cuts that will kick in as part of federal efforts to rein in the deficit. Entitlement programs, such as food stamps and Social Security, however, are exempt from the automatic cuts.

In the meantime, a local organization plans to ramp up support for the program as much as possible.

As part of this, the California WIC Association is making sure Congress gets the message. This fall, the nonprofit has asked people to write a message on a paper plate and send it to their representative explaining why they need WIC. In December, the paper plates will be shipped to Congress.

“WIC is extremely effective and well-managed and has usually had bipartisan support,” True said. “We will fight on with our campaign throughout next year.”