Congressional inaction on WIC puts access to baby formula at risk for low-income Ohioans

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB/Report for America) — Budget gridlock in Washington could mean low-income women in southeast Ohio lose access to baby formula through WIC.

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children — or WIC — ensures moms and babies have the nutrients to stay healthy. That includes baby formula for women who can’t otherwise afford it.

In fact, this program is essentially the only way for low-income mothers to get formula, according to Eva Bloom of Hocking Athens Perry Community Action.

Despite its importance and popularity, WIC faces a serious funding crunch because of the budget dispute in Congress that initially came to a head in November. Congress has passed two funding resolutions since then to keep the government open, but these resolutions have held funding for WIC and other programs to the previous year’s level. Before that, WIC had enjoyed broad bipartisan support.

The Biden Administration says without a funding raise, WIC will face a roughly $1 billion shortfall this year. The administration estimates that 52,000 Ohio women and children would then be turned away from the program.

Lucy Bucher, senior director of clinical affairs at OhioHealth O’Bleness, explained the significance of WIC to mothers and their babies.

“The WIC program is hugely impactful for patients, not only in the immediate postpartum and infant feeding. It’s for pregnant patients, helping make sure they have adequate nutrition, and then for families as well,” said Bucher. “And they do provide significant breastfeeding support, as well as the formula support.”

Baby formula is not the only thing WIC provides, but it does provide useful insight into why the program is important.

“There are some situations where (breastfeeding) is not feasible,” Bucher explained. That may be due to a medical condition of the mother or to infants with special nutritional needs stemming from prematurity, poor growth, allergies or gastrointestinal concerns. In those cases, infants may need specialized formula to get the nutrients they need to survive and grow.

A person puts powdered milk into a baby bottle.
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Bloom said she and her colleagues are worried about what a diminished WIC program would mean for HAPCAP.

“We’re gonna have women, pregnant women, we’re gonna have kids up to 5, who need this nutritional support, and there’s not gonna be enough money to pay for it,” Bloom said.

That would likely mean more demand on the Southeast Ohio Foodbank, which has already seen heightened demand following the rollback of COVID-era SNAP benefits in March.

“We are already seeing more individuals and families coming to us than we have at any time during the pandemic,” Bloom said. Having to purchase baby formula would further strain the foodbank’s limited resources.

Nor is the foodbank the only part of HAPCAP that would suffer if WIC funding falters. HAPCAP Health Equity & Outreach Coordinator Izzy Hutchinson runs Bringing Healthy Home, which serves food-insecure, low-income mothers and their infants up to six months postpartum. In some ways, the program has built its offerings around what is already available through WIC.

“I only have a set amount of dollars I can pull from,” Hutchinson explained. “Let’s say I need to start purchasing formula, right? Well, that may mean that I have to buy fewer baby clothes, fewer pacifiers and teething toys, things of that nature. It would pull funding away from funding I would use to fulfill other needs.”

Conversely, Hutchinson said, expanding WIC funding could help fix one of the program’s biggest problems: lack of awareness. She estimated about 51% of eligible WIC recipients in southeast Ohio currently access the program.

“If funding for WIC were bolstered, as it should be, we could expand our outreach efforts and make sure people have a greater understanding of what WIC is and how you can be eligible,” Hutchinson said.

Congress has until March 1 to make a final decision about WIC funding. WOUB reached out to members representing southeast Ohio for their thoughts on the program.

Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown expressed strong support for WIC: “WIC keeps babies and their moms healthy. It’s critical that we keep the politics out and fully invest in this critical, life-saving program.”

A spokesperson from the senator’s office highlighted WIC’s role in improving birth outcomes and lowering medical costs by providing critical prenatal care.

Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Hillsboro) said he supports WIC but noted concern about rising inflation.

“Record inflation and increases in food prices over the last two years has put a strain on the WIC program like it has on so many Americans’ food budgets, and the young families that depend on WIC deserve stability,” Wenstrup said. “Congress must continue to support our most vulnerable fellow citizens while responsibly getting our fiscal house in order.”

Rep. Troy Balderson (R-Zanesville) did not respond to a request for comment.