My, it seems like only yesterday that Congress reauthorized the Child Nutrition Act. Yet here we are again, with hearings, proposals, petitions and behind-closed-doors presentations that will determine the shape and reach of many of our major federal nutrition assistance programs — perhaps before year’s end.
Last week, we heard from experts of a different sort — two low-income mothers who know first-hand how the child nutrition programs work. And though both had thoughts about how they could work better, the big message was that they do work — for moms, as well as kids.
The experts are Witnesses to Hunger — participants in grassroots groups brought together by Professor Mariana Chilton of Drexel University’s Center for Hunger-Free Communities. They bear witness to food insecurity and hunger, but also a range of other poverty-related issues.
They’re given cameras to shoot photos that capture something significant about their lives. They collaborate to create exhibits and choose issues to advocate on.
And they speak truth to power in hearings, meetings and other forums where policymakers who choose to can learn how the decisions they’ve made affect low-income families — and how those they could make would.
The CNA comprises nine federal programs that subsidize meals, snacks and serve-at-home foods and beverages for poor and near-poor children, parents and, in some cases, elderly and/or disabled adults.
Witnesses collectively, however, have an agenda for the CNA reauthorization that also includes both summer meal programs and a WIC offshoot that enables some participants to get coupons or the equivalent for purchases at farmers’ markets.
Quanda opened the discussion by saying, “I love WIC.” Her first and seemingly foremost reason wasn’t, as we might expect, the supplement that enabled her to afford more than her SNAP (food stamp) benefits cover.
Rather, it was what she learned about “how to eat” so as to nourish her unborn child and why she should breastfeed her — something she says she wouldn’t have done without the education and practical how-to WIC staff provided.
She’s grateful for the supplement too, however. WIC enabled her to resume looking for work, which meant no more breastfeeding — and thus the need for a store-bought substitute. Without WIC formula coupons, she would have had to spend more than half her SNAP benefits just for the cans.
The burden would have been even greater when she learned, thanks to WIC staff, that she would have to buy an alternative to regular milk for her second child because his acute digestive problems were symptoms of lactose intolerance.
Life was still very tough, especially after he was born, and she was trying to care for her family with only their nutrition benefits and cash assistance from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program — probably $618 a month, since she lives in Boston.
“I am single,” Quanda said — not simply because she’s unmarried, but because she “can’t go to anyone.” She has “no mother, grandmother or boyfriend” to turn to. No such source of emotional support. No handed-down wisdom.
At times, she’d lie on her bed crying, tempted to “give up…. Nobody told me how I would feel.” But her caseworker apparently stepped into the breach. “If the programs weren’t in place, I wouldn’t be here,” she said. “They say it takes a village to raise a child. I use the programs as my village.”
Quanda’s story seems likely to have a happy ending. She’s earned a teaching certificate and has a full-time job in early childhood education. Her children are in school now.
The free or reduced-price breakfasts and lunches they get there ensure they have enough of the right kinds of things to eat, even at the end of the month, when her SNAP benefits run short, since they have to cover only dinners — at least, on weekdays when school is in session.
The story could have been quite different. “Hunger and food insecurity are a brain disease,” Chilton told us. During infancy, the brain’s neurons, i.e., its specialized messaging cells, proliferate interconnections exponentially.
But without the needed nutrients, development slows. And what doesn’t happen in early childhood won’t be made up for later.
Not long after I started this blog, I published a post, based in part on a brief by Children’s HealthWatch that summarized what was then the latest scientific evidence of WIC’s effectiveness in promoting the health and development of very young children.
I focused mainly on funding, which is still an issue, and on the need for Congress to require more fruits and vegetables in the package states must use in deciding which specific foods and beverages — and how much of each — they’ll enable parents to buy with their benefits.
The package provides for more more fruits and vegetables now. Witnesses would still like “[m]ore fruits and veggie checks,” i.e., coupons or credits they could use in grocery stores. They want more milk for older children also. And electronic benefits cards in states that still issue coupons.
These are the sorts of specific improvements that people who participate in our safety net programs can best identify.
What struck me so about what the two Witnesses said, however, was their emphasis on the broader child and family health orientation that distinguishes WIC, including their relationships with counselors. The benefits here are only partly reflected in the health data research provides.
The moms clearly want, more than anything, to see their children thrive — emotionally, as well as physically. They want to see them grow into adults who have fulfilling jobs and more financial security than they have had.
Advocacy is part of this. “We tell our stories,” Tianna said, “so our children will not walk in the same steps we do.” This is why they’re speaking out on the CNA programs they know best.
WIC, says Quanda, can help millions of moms like her “create a strong foundation for … [their] kids to break the cycle of poverty.” Seems to me that ought to resonate with policymakers across the political spectrum.