Hungering for a solution

Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 10, 2013

For thousands of low-income North Carolina mothers and children, including many in Rowan County, the government shutdown took an unhealthy turn Tuesday. That’s when the government stopped funding the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, more commonly known as WIC.
The program helps expectant mothers and moms with babies and small children obtain healthy food such as milk, juice, cereal and infant formula. In addition, it dispenses information to promote healthier pregnancies and ensure that young offspring get a good nutritional start in life. In a state struggling to lower the infant mortality rate, it’s an important program that pays dividends in improved health and quality of life for mothers and children who have few other options.
Because it’s entirely supported through federal funds, the shutdown means the money will soon run out. Most recipients have already received the vouchers to help buy food and formula for October, but Rowan County officials, like those elsewhere, say they won’t be able to issue future vouchers for WIC participants or new applicants until the federal budget impasse is resolved. Unfortunately, politicians in Washington aren’t averse to using vulnerable citizens as pawns.
At this point, there also appears little chance of the state stepping in, since state agencies had previously been notified that no state funds were to be used to shore up programs that rely on federal funding. In North Carolina, about 264,000 women, infant and young children are enrolled in the program, including almost 4,000 in Rowan County, according to recent figures.
The voucher suspension would have a ripple effect, impacting supermarkets and other vendors as well as food banks. Generous donations like the $500,000 announced by Food Lion can help provide temporary assistance for needy families, but corporate philanthropy can’t replace a $200 million program. While health departments can continue to provide nutritional counseling and take WIC applications, it’s unconscionable that women and children already living on the margins of food stability could see this safety net shredded.
As if closed parks, furloughed federal and state workers and National Guardsmen weren’t reason enough to demand an end to this manufactured crisis, now we have the specter of mothers unable to provide healthy food for their young offspring. If there’s a way for the state to temporarily support this program, it should do so. But the solution lies in Congress. If self-righteous representatives forgoing their handsome paychecks also went on a shutdown fast, they’d develop more urgency about ending this debacle.