Government shutdown could impact infant health, nutrition

SEATTLE - Some of Washington's youngest people could be impacted the most by the federal government shutdown with the possible closure of a program that helps feed more than half the country's babies.

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, also known as WIC, provides formula, food stamps, nutrition education and breastfeeding support to mothers and 53 percent of children born in the United States. But closure of the federal government has halted the program's funding.

If the shutdown continues, 195,000 women and children in our state could soon lose crucial benefits.

While Washington has $4.5 million in reserves to continue the program in the short-term, the state Department of Health predicts that will only pay for WIC for nine more days.

Tim Church, director of communications for Washington DOH, said his department is already receiving calls from worried mothers.

"People rely on those checks," he said. "That's part of what helps a family get by from week to week, to help them buy healthy foods and not boxed macaroni and cheese every night."

Church said WIC is different from other food supplement programs because the checks can only be spent on nutritious items.

"WIC is not just about providing food, it's about providing healthy food guidance," he said. "To help babies get off to a healthy start."

Fran Yeatts, executive director of the West Seattle Food Bank, said formula is a significant cost for many parents.

"If families can't afford it sometimes they'll water it down, which is really unhealthy for the babies," she said.

Yeatts said even when WIC benefits are available families sometimes come to the food bank asking for more formula. If WIC benefits run out she said they may reallocate some of their food purchasing budget to buy formula instead of other items.

While the West Seattle Food Bank has not made a special request for formula yet, Yeatts said they always accept formula donations and there is always a demand for it.

Other federal food assistance programs have not been affected by the shutdown. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides food stamps, is operating with stimulus and contingency funding through the 2014 fiscal year. Child Nutrition Programs - including School Lunch, School Breakfast, Child and Adult Care Feeding, Summer Food Service and Special Milk - are still operating because these meal providers are reimbursed 30 days after the end of the service month.

Church said WIC will continue to operate as usual until the government shutdown ends or funding is depleted.

"We're encouraging people on WIC to stay the course," he said. "Our hope is that it's going to be there. There's no plan B. It's a massive program that requires a lot of money. It will not be easily replaced."

WIC clients can find more information on the Washington Department of Health website.