Nutrition, Politics, Social Determinants of Health

Federal shutdown should not immediately threaten food aid for WA mothers and kids

Photo by Eduardo Soares on Unsplash

By Bill Lucia, Washington State Standard
September 26, 2023

Food aid for mothers and young children in Washington will not be immediately disrupted in the event of a federal shutdown, the state’s Department of Health said on Tuesday.

The Biden administration on Monday warned that funding for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC, could run short in many states if the federal government shuts down, which could happen Sunday.

But Paul Throne, director of the state Department of Health’s Office of Nutrition Services, said in an email that Washington has sufficient funds to operate its WIC program for “a couple months” even without additional federal funding.

The program in Washington costs about $150 million a year to run, and the Department of Health has just over $26 million to sustain it through a shutdown, the agency says.

“If we need emergency finding, we would work internally, and as needed, with the Governor’s Office and Legislature to identify possible sources of funds,” Throne added.

WIC provides food assistance to mothers and children up to 5 years old. In July, about 130,400 people received benefits from the program in Washington, including around 25,600 infants and 76,400 kids older than 1, according to the Department of Health.

While Washington is positioned to endure a shutdown with its program, it’s not clear that’s true in other states with tighter budgets or thinner social safety nets.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said during a Monday White House briefing that the fallout from a shutdown could hit WIC recipients within days.

“Millions of those moms, [babies] and young children would see a lack of nutrition assistance,” he said.

Nationwide nearly 7 million women and children depend on the program for food assistance, according to the White House.

The Biden administration said that without funding it requested, states could soon be forced to institute waiting lists for WIC benefits.

Throne said Washington officials “have considered actions to extend funding,” but that they “do not believe waiting lists, or limits on the kinds of foods people can get with their WIC benefits, will do enough to make a big difference.”

“We are not planning to institute any changes in the program at this time,” he added.

During a federal shutdown that lasted five weeks from December 2018 to January 2019, Throne said Washington did not alter its WIC program in any way.

“We used existing funds and had sufficient funds on hand to continue to operate as usual for another month at the point the shutdown ended,” he said. “We did not need to shift funds or use state funds to support the program.”

The potential for a shutdown is looming at midnight on Saturday, which marks the end of the federal fiscal year. Lawmakers in Congress have struggled to come up with a deal to extend funding beyond then, with rifts among House Republicans hindering progress.

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and Twitter.