600,000 young children, new parents could be turned away and benefits cut for another 4.7 million
We all understand the importance of ensuring the healthy development of young children. But rising costs of food, housing, child care and other basic needs have all contributed to increased food insecurity and hunger in New Hampshire, particularly among households with children.
In October, 66% of households with children reported they had difficulty paying usual household expenses. We should be alarmed but not surprised that over half of New Hampshire households report they don’t have sufficient food for their kids. These are all challenges that can be solved, and solving hunger actually requires little in terms of creative thinking.
Many people think of food banks as the answer to hunger, and while they play an important role, the truth is, the front-line defenses against hunger are the federal programs that are designed to improve food and nutrition security for all of us when in need — school meals, SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), and WIC (Women, Infants and Children) nutrition assistance, for example.
While food banks are critical in times of urgency, they rely on charitable giving to operate, and so are not designed, nor can they solve hunger, for the long-term. Our goal and our methods in eliminating hunger should support increasing food and nutrition security by improving access to a healthful diet and nutrition education, and to do so in a way that supports American agriculture and normal trade. And that is precisely the mission of the Food and Nutrition Service, which has been run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in cooperation with states, since 1969. In short, federal nutrition programs are there to make sure that healthy food is available for everyone in need.
Our immediate concern is that right now, rather than expand nutrition programs to respond to the growing need, Congress has failed to fully fund the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children.
WIC is a nutrition program that is targeted to the critical life stages of pregnancy and postpartum and birth through age 5. It provides the kinds of nutrition shown to support healthier pregnancies and the optimal development of infants and young children.
Decades of research have documented significant positive impacts of WIC on maternal and child health: It reduces pre-term births, low birthweight and infant mortality. It is an extremely cost-effective investment, as well — every $1 spent on WIC results in an average savings of $2.48 in health care costs, largely from WIC’s role in reducing pre-term births.
Children who receive WIC are more likely to be in good health than their peers who are eligible but do not receive WIC due to difficulties accessing the program. WIC has its most protective effects on children under the age of 12 months, when the brain’s architecture is being built. It isn’t surprising, then, that WIC has been shown to reduce the risk of developmental delays in young children.
Congress has failed to fund WIC to protect participation, services and benefits once the current Continuing Resolution expires on Nov. 17. Without immediate — and ultimately, full funding — states may be forced to turn away nutritionally vulnerable women with low incomes and their young children, undermining their health and well-being.
Given the evidence of WIC’s success in meeting its goals to improve the health of women and children, and given the continued need for this kind of nutrition support, it is difficult to understand why the annual funding bills proposed in both the U.S. House and Senate fail to provide sufficient funding for eligible families to receive the full nutrition assistance benefit.
The nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that, nationally, 600,000 young children and new parents could be turned away from WIC, and benefits cut for another 4.7 million. A disproportionate share of those who are at risk of losing access to WIC or having their benefits cut are from Black and Latinx households. In New Hampshire, it is estimated that 11,500 families would be harmed by this failure to adequately support WIC.
Congress must include additional funding — a down payment for WIC in the next short-term spending bill (continuing resolution, or CR) — and fully fund it in the final fiscal year 2024 appropriations package to ensure no interruption in participation, benefits or services, and to avoid waiting lists.
We are calling on our congressional leaders to act in the best interest of women, infants and children in New Hampshire and throughout our country, and to act now to protect this critical public health program.
Laura Milliken is the executive director for NH Hunger Solutions.