Low-Income Moms Weigh in on Child Nutrition Programs

July 23, 2015

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.

The two Witnesses — Quanda and Tianna — focused largely on school meal programs and WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children).

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.






Congress Members Demand Equal Rights for White Potatoes

May 19, 2014

Last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a final rule for what must and may be in the WIC food packages that state agencies establish for their supplemental nutrition assistance to low-income pregnant women, mothers and young children.

This is altogether good news for the more than 8.6 million moms and kids the program serves — and for everyone who cares about children’s health.

Research indicates that the nutrition aid, health screenings and related referrals that WIC provides help ensure that babies don’t come into the world with high mortality risks, e.g., premature, weighing dangerously little.

And a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that improvements in the WIC food packages may help explain the marked drop in obesity among young children. Now USDA has set the stage for more.

Mothers will have a wider range of dairy and whole grain choices and an additional $2.00 a month to buy fruits and vegetables for their kids. They’ll be able to buy them for older infants, instead of baby food versions.

What they won’t be able to do is use their coupons to buy white potatoes — not a new exclusion. But the potato industry is outraged. “We can’t have the federal government perpetuating … negative stereotypes,” says the head of the National Potato Council.

Members of Congress have leaped to the defense of the allegedly maligned — but oft eaten — white potato.

Last year, four Senators tried to get the white potato into WIC packages by amending the then-evolving Farm Bill.

Failing that, Idaho Senator Mike Simpson stuck a provision into this year’s budget bill that requires the Secretary of Agriculture to order all state agencies to put the white potato into their WIC packages — or explain why he wouldn’t.

The Secretary instead initiated a new IOM review of the WIC food packages. Not good enough. Twenty Senators recently wrote him to “urge … immediate action to remedy the unwarranted exclusion of white potatoes.”

Echoing talking points from the NPC, they allege that IOM used outdated dietary guidelines and ignored the fiber and other nutrients that make white potatoes such a healthful thing to eat.

No one, of course, is claiming that white potatoes lack any nutritional value. The issue is rather whether mothers and young children should eat more of them than they already do. The IOM concluded that they ate plenty.

Our bipartisan potato defenders — many of them recipients of NPC campaign contributions — now seem poised to take matters into their own hands.

David Rogers at Politico reports that lead Republicans on the Senate Appropriations Committee plan to put a white potato mandate into the USDA appropriations bill. He (reasonably) expects support from enough Democrats to pass it.

We’ll probably see a similar — perhaps also bipartisan — maneuver in the House.

This isn’t just another instance of a well-funded special interest getting its way. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says, Congress has never required WIC to include — or exclude — any particular food.

Not that members haven’t tried. Back in the late 1990s, for example, both Senators from Kellogg’s home state pushed for the mandatory inclusion of the company’s Raisin Bran, which exceeded the WIC sugar limit.

So you see what this white potato campaign could lead to. The president of the Children’s Health Fund asks, only half-jokingly, “Will Big Twinkie soon claim underrpresentation in toddlers’ diets too?”

It’s not only WIC — and the young children whose health it supports — that are endangered by such meddling.

In 2011, Congress blocked a change in the nutrition standards for school lunches that would have kept schools from counting pizza as a vegetable based on the tiny bit of tomato paste used to make the sauce. It also deferred a phased-in reduction of sodium in the meals schools served.

And — wouldn’t you know? — it kept USDA from limiting servings of starchy vegetables, e.g., white potatoes.

Now House Republicans are reportedly considering again using the agriculture appropriations bill to block rules implementing other improvements in school meal programs that Congress authorized when it renewed the Child Nutrition Act.

And again apparently some bipartisanship. Seems that our concerned policymakers would prefer to let schools continue serving white rice, white bread and other foods made wholly with bleached flour, rather than more healthful whole-grain alternatives.

They object to new standards for “competitive foods,” i.e. those sold on school grounds in vending machines, snack bars and the like.

Heaven forfend students shouldn’t be able to make a lunch of chips and a candy bar, washed down with a soda — and schools to make money on them, as some administrators say they have.

At least some of the policymakers are responding to administrators’ complaints — not only the revenue losses, but more food waste because kids don’t take to the whole-grain pasta and/or the fruits and veggies. Some also fret about the higher costs of serving healthier meals.

But studies suggest that kids will adjust to the healthier meals over time. And if USDA’s reimbursement rates aren’t high enough, Congress can increase them.

This is an appropriate role for our elected officials. Overriding science-based rules that will improve child nutrition isn’t.




What Would Sequestration Mean for Low-Income DC Families?

April 12, 2012

I decided to write about the across-the-board spending cuts the Budget Control Act mandates because I wanted to be sure we all had a common frame of reference when I turned to what we all, I trust, really care about.

How much less would federally-funded programs have to help low-income people?

Easy enough to answer, I thought. After all, the new report from the Coalition on Human Needs includes program-specific tables.

But I was immediately overwhelmed. The primary table lists more than 140 programs that serve what CHN classifies as basic human needs.

For each, we’ve got past and current spending levels, plus two estimates* of how much the program would lose in January 2013, when the first round of sequestration is due.

The range and extent of the losses is overwhelming. Trying to get a handle on them is overwhelming too. This is one thorough report!

So I’ll focus on a subset of the handful of programs that CHN breaks down to state-level impacts — those that best answer the question my title poses.


WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) has already suffered from a series of cuts.

If Congress resists the urge to take another whack at the program, the District of Columbia would lose close to $1.5 million as its share of the 2013 automatic cut.

Less money at a time when food prices are rising. We might see a waiting list, though mothers can hardly put their children on hold till they can nourish them properly.


The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program has also suffered from federal deficit-reduction fever.

Current funding is about $1.6 billion less than it was in Fiscal Year 2010, not counting the temporary boost LIHEAP got from the Recovery Act. The President’s budget would cut another $452 million.

But say the program got level-funded. The District would then lose somewhat over $1 million in the first round of sequestration.

Some unknown number of eligible households would be literally in the cold — some homeless, since evictions can follow unmanageable utility bills.

National survey figures suggest that about 41% of the at-risk households would be families with children.

Child Care and Development Block Grant

The Child Care and Development Block Grant has two funding streams — one so-called entitlement that’s shielded from the across-the-board cuts and one dependent on annual appropriations that isn’t.

If the Fiscal Year 2013 appropriation were the same as what the block grant is getting now, the District would lose $296,000.

May not seem like much, but the program already lacks funds to make affordable high-quality child care available, especially for low-income parents with infants and children with disabilities.

Head Start

Here in the District, as nationwide, Head Start supports a range of services for low-income children and their parents.

If Congress level-funds the program, the District would lose close to $2.8 million in Fiscal Year 2013.

So there goes more money that supports early childhood development — and gives some low-income parents an alternative to the dauntingly high costs of market-rate child care.

Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act

Title I of what’s now called No Child Left Behind funds services to help low-income students graduate “college and career ready.” It’s the single largest source of federal financial support for public school systems.

If Congress approves the same amount the program is getting now, the District would initially lose well over $4.6 million.

As the DC Fiscal Policy Institute tells us, Mayor Gray’s proposed budget will mean a cost crunch for at least some schools — and no extra funding for those with high student poverty rates.

The Title I cut would, of course, increase the cost-crunch — and undermine urgently-needed efforts to prepare low-income youth for the demands of our high-education/high-skills job market.

IDEA Grants

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the federal government provides three sets of grants to help states meet their legal obligations for educating children with disabilities.

Again assuming level-funding, the District would lose more than $1.7 million from the cut in the largest grant program. Total loss would be larger, of course.

As you may know, the District’s budget has long been stressed by the costs of providing the required “free and appropriate” education to children with disabilities.

The Mayor aims to bring more of these children into the regular public school system — better for them as well as for the bottom line, if the schools get enough funding to meet the children’s needs.

The partial loss of federal grant funds would presumably require the District to invest more local dollars in special education services — more, at least, than it would otherwise have to.

I shudder to think where those dollars would come from.

* Analysts can only ballpark funding losses because the across-the-board cuts would be based on Fiscal Year 2013 appropriations. And Congress has only just started working on these.

CHN provides two sets of estimates based on current appropriations. One applies a percent estimate from the Congressional Budget Office. The other uses a higher percent estimate from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

CBPP explains — convincingly to me — that CBO oversimplified its Fiscal Year 2013 estimates to make them consistent with out-year estimates. So I’m reporting cuts estimated with the Center’s percent.

House Republicans Give New Meaning To “Women And Children First”

June 17, 2011

House Republicans have decided that WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) must be cut to “restore the fiscal health of our nation.”

These words from the House Appropriations Committee’s report, which also assures us that the U.S. Department of Agriculture will have sufficient funding for its core missions, including “helping the most needy in our domestic feeding programs.”

WIC currently serves nearly 9 million low-income pregnant women, infants, children under five and their mothers, provided that a health professional has found them to be “at nutritional risk,” e.g., because they’re anemic, underweight or not consuming enough of the right kinds of things for a healthy diet.

Mothers and children in these categories are eligible if their family income is at or below 185% of the federal poverty line. Those who participate — or have family members who participate — in certain other federally-funded benefits programs can be automatically eligible.

In some states, this apparently makes for some exceptions to the regular eligibility ceiling. The Appropriations Committee wants USDA to focus solely on “the neediest or the hardest hit by the economic downturn.” Forget about the just plain needy.

The committee’s report also says that the Secretary of Agriculture can supplement the appropriation, if necessary, by using funds left over from the current fiscal year, plus funds in a separate contingency account.

Seems to imply that there’ll be enough to serve everyone who’s eligible. Not so.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has crunched the numbers. It reports that, even when you factor in these additional funds, state WIC programs would have to turn away 200,000-350,000 low-income mothers and children.

Here in the District, 400-600 could lose out on the healthy foods and diverse preventive services that make WIC so important to the health and development of poor children in their critical early years.

The numerical ranges reflect uncertainties about food prices.

WIC participants get coupons or the equivalent to purchase certain amounts of specific foods and beverages. Their monthly allotments reflect what states have chosen from a federally-established food basket, which provides for different items in different quantities according to scientifically-determined needs.

So when costs of the items in the basket rise, per participant costs rise as well. Federal funding doesn’t.

Anyone who’s been to the grocery store lately knows that food prices have shot up. CBPP says that experts expect a further increase of at least 2% before the end of next fiscal year. Some think a 5% increase is likely. But who knows what droughts, floods, another spike in gas prices, etc. could mean?

We do know that the WIC cut would have no meaningful impact on the deficit. The continuing resolution that’s funding the federal government now provides only $6.73 billion for the program. The House has just voted to reduce next year’s funding to $6.05 billion.

Chump change “savings” in light of a deficit that would be somewhere in the neighborhood of $1 trillion next year, even under the House Republican’s radical budget plan.

And a true case of penny wise, pound foolish. Lots of research shows that participation in WIC reduces costly health problems and developmental delays.

USDA reports that every $1.00 spent on WIC has saved as much as $3.13 in health care costs during the first two months after an infant’s birth. Per dollar savings increased to about $3.50 over an 18 year period.

Looking at the issue from the other side, the Partnership for America’s Economic Success reviews a range of physical, mental, behavioral and academic problems linked to prenatal and early childhood food insecurity.

These are costly in economic as well as human terms. Consider not only the direct outlays for health care, special education and the like, but the long-term costs in lost productivity — and tax revenues.

But House Republicans aren’t really thinking in economic terms. They’re going after federal programs that don’t fit their ideological framework — with those they’ve shrewdly decided to call “welfare” high on the list.

If they were really concerned about promoting prosperity, they’d see WIC as a good investment. Really concerned about the deficit, they’d agree to let the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy expire.

Just one week of what these cuts give America’s millionaires could fund the year-long increase for WIC that the President requested and leave millions for other purposes.

Congress Moves To Improve Nutrition for Poor Women and Children

August 19, 2009

WIC (formally, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) is one of our best public investments in the health, growth and development of the next generation.

For more than 34 years, it’s helped eligible pregnant women and parents with young children purchase foods and beverages needed for a healthful diet. It also provides breastfeeding counseling, other nutrition education and links to local health care services.

Like other child nutrition programs, WIC depends on annual appropriations. They’ve never been large enough to serve everyone who’s eligible. But WIC still has far more participants now than in pre-recession days.

In 2007, participation averaged somewhat under 8.3 million women and children. In May of this year, it was up to more than 9 million. The Obama administration projects Fiscal Year 2010 participation at a monthly average of 9.8 million.

Just before the Senate recessed, it passed its version of the Fiscal Year 2010 agriculture appropriations bill (S. 1406). This is the bill that provides funding for WIC, as well as food stamps and the other child nutrition programs.

The WIC part of the bill is similar, though not identical, to the provisions in the agriculture appropriations bill the House passed in July (H.R. 2997). They’re both good news.

First off, both bills will increase funding for WIC. The Senate version would provide $192 million more in new funds than the appropriations for this fiscal year, including the increase that was part of the economic recovery package. With the estimated balance in contingency funds, the total available for WIC would be somewhat more than $8 million–nearly 15% more than the original Fiscal Year 2009 appropriation.

The House bill would provide $10 million less than the Senate bill. However, the House Appropriations Committee states in its report that it will monitor food costs, participation and available funds and “take additional action, as necessary” to ensure that there’s enough funding for all eligible applicants.

The funding increase is just part of the good news. Both the House and Senate committee reports specifically state that some portion of the appropriations are to be used to increase fruit and vegetable vouchers up to the amounts recommended by the Institute of Medicine.

The bills thus override a decision the Bush administration made to limit program costs by covering considerably smaller allotments of fruits and vegetables than what IOM had determined was necessary for a healthy diet. So we should expect further improvements in the recently-expanded WIC food packages.

Of course, WIC is a small part of the agriculture appropriations bills. There are many differences between them that have to be resolved before the Department of Agriculture has a final Fiscal Year 2010 budget. The new fiscal year begins October 1, so we may see a final version some time in September.

Could WIC Promote Healthy Corner Stores?

April 30, 2009

Fellow blogger Greg Bloom at Bread for the City has asked whether the WIC program could be leveraged with programs like DC Hunger Solution’s Healthy Corner Store initiative to boost demand for more healthful foods.

An intriguing question. So let me try to answer.

Of course, the first step would be to ensure that corner stores in low-income neighborhoods are authorized to accept WIC coupons. Those DC Hunger Solutions interviewed are not. If they were, then the nutrition information and education WIC recipients are supposed to receive could be expanded to specifically address opportunities for healthful choices at corner stores.

Focusing on the WIC authorization issue would make a lot of sense. As I recently wrote, the federal WIC food package has been significantly expanded. The District is in the process of expanding its approved foods list accordingly.

So by the time corner stores got authorized, they would be able to accept WIC coupons for a wide variety of foods. And, of course, WIC recipients would have more convenient places to use their coupons. However, current vendor requirements pose significant barriers for a typical corner store. This is something the D.C. Health Department should look into.

Greg also asks about initiatives to support purchases at farmers’ markets, citing the Wholesome Wave Foundation’s double value coupon initiative.

At least one local government has adopted an approach similar to the programs Wholesome Wave is funding. New York City issues “health bucks” coupons, worth $2 each, to residents in low-income communities with high obesity rates. These are redeemable for fresh fruits and vegetables at participating farmers’ markets.

Food stamp recipients get an additional “health bucks” coupon for every $5 in food stamps they spend at a farmers’ market. I don’t see why a similar initiative couldn’t include purchases with WIC coupons as well as food stamps. Something D.C. could consider.

That said, I doubt whether such an initiative could have a major impact on the diets of many low-income D.C. residents. As with full-service grocery stores, the problem is location. There are only two farmers’ markets east of the Anacostia River, where the greatest concentrations of low-income people live. But here too building demand might increase supply.

The District has taken a first step by becoming part of the federal WIC Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program. Under this program, D.C. WIC participants can get five $5 checks for fresh fruit and vegetable purchases at authorized farmers’ markets. Hardly enough for a year-round healthful diet. But, hey, every bit helps.

WIC Works

April 9, 2009

Last Thursday, Children’s HealthWatch hosted a policy briefing on WIC, aka the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women Infants and Children. What a ray of sunshine in the midst of so much gloomy news! Because here’s a cost-effective program that’s been shown to work.

WIC provides coupons for food purchases tailored to the individual nutrition needs of eligible pregnant women and children up to the age of five. Eligibility here means at or below 185% of the federal poverty level, plus a determination of “nutrition risk.” Many conditions qualify as nutrition risks, including being underweight, overweight, anemic or just plain “food insecure,” i.e., not having ongoing access to enough of the right kinds of foods for a healthy life.

WIC also provides various kinds of nutrition education and, very importantly, links to local health services. It helps ensure prenatal care, childhood immunizations and regular checkups. So it’s a linchpin among our safety net programs.

And a cost-saver. According to a report by the Partnership for America’s Economic Success, every $1.00 spent on WIC saves as much as $3.13 in Medicaid costs, plus significant other costs linked to the impacts of food insecurity.

WIC has a 34-year track record of improving the health, growth and development of poor children in their critical early years. And it will soon–in some states already does–offer a much improved food package. Many more choices, including (finally!) fruits and vegetables, whole grain and soy products and other foods that reflect up-to-date research on healthy eating.

WIC is up for reauthorization this year. That’s what occasioned the briefing. Panelists had some recommendations for additional improvements. Most of these would preserve and strengthen the program’s capacity to do what it’s already authorized to do.

But there’s also a need to require some further improvements in the food package–notably an increase in the allotment for fruits and vegetables. USDA doesn’t need authorization to do this. It needs a mandate that will supersede an arbitrary cost-control decision made during the last Administration.

A bigger issue is funding because, like most federal programs, WIC depends on annual appropriations. The Obama administration has proposed a $1 billion per year increase for child nutrition programs, including WIC. This, the budget says, would enable WIC to serve more than 9.8 million mothers and young children. That’s about 1.1 million more than the program served in 2008.

Would the increase be enough to serve the growing number of pregnant women and young children who are at risk of malnutrition due to the depression? Would it enable states to offer a wide variety of healthful, culturally-appropriate food choices, as federal regulations now permit? That’s hard to say.

But what’s clear is that investments in WIC pay off in healthier children and, ultimately, healthier, more productive adults. Among other things, as one briefing panelist said, WIC is “the best obesity prevention program we have.”

What’s also clear is that poor children can’t wait until our economy improves or until we get better control of the projected budget deficit. The first three years of life are the most critical period for brain development. That’s when the neural connections related to hearing, vision and language are made. So we can’t decide to save money now and save at-risk children later.

Something for Congress to bear in mind as it looks for ways to trim spending.