December 04, 2020

Cardin, Van Hollen Urge Congress to Invest $6 Billion To Meet Growing Nutrition Needs

WASHINGTON — Today, U.S. Senators Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen (both D-Md.) called on Congress to invest $6 billion in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) in next year’s spending bill. Nationwide, 1 in 5 parents do not have enough to feed their children. Millions of Americans, especially women, continue to be affected by widespread business closures and subsequent job loss and more low-income households are relying on social safety nets to feed themselves and their families.

Currently more than 122,000 Marylanders rely on WIC, an increase in 3 percent since February 2020. Last month approximately 12.5 percent of Maryland households with children reported not having enough food to eat. WIC providers have reported increased need due to the pandemic and economic crisis. With a resurgence of COVID-19 cases across the country threatening public health and economic recovery, ensuring that WIC is fully funded is more critical than ever to keep low-income women, infants, and children fed. 

“As Americans face high unemployment and financial hardship due to COVID-19, food insecurity is reaching record highs. American families and children should not have to go hungry or worry about when their next meal may come.” said Senator Cardin. “Food assistance was a critical lifeline for low-income families before this economic crisis and is important now than ever before. Congress must work to ensure all Americans are able to put food on the table.” 

“The ongoing pandemic and economic crisis have left many Americans struggling to put food on the table. And with a long winter still ahead, even more families will turn to critical food assistance programs to weather this storm,” said Senator Van Hollen. “Congress must provide full funding for WIC to meet the increasing needs of children and families across Maryland and the country. We have a moral obligation to act.”

Fully funding WIC will protect eligible applicants from being turned away and provide resources to adjust for rising food costs. Additionally, funding is essential for timely and responsible program management and reasonable staffing levels to meet growing demand and the rising costs of operating during a pandemic – including modifying clinic spaces and purchasing additional technology to provide remote services. 

The letter was also signed by U.S. Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), and Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.).

Full text of the letter can be found here and below. 

 

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Dear Chairman Shelby, Vice Chairman Leahy, Chairwoman Lowey, and Ranking Member Granger:

We respectfully ask that you fully fund the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) in the final Fiscal Year 2021 Agriculture Appropriations bill at $6 billion which is consistent with the Senate funding level for FY 2021. Fully funding WIC ensures that no eligible applicants are turned away and that the program has funds to ensure timely and responsible program management and reasonable staffing levels.

We also urge you to adopt the House funding level of $20 million in discretionary funding for the WIC Farmer’s Market Nutrition Program (FMNP) in FY 2021. WIC FMNP provides low- income pregnant and postpartum women with coupons or electronic benefits to buy fresh produce from authorized farmers and farmers markets.

After years of declining caseload, WIC providers are reporting increased participation as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic disruption. New York alone has seen a 3 percent increase in caseload since February 2020, although other states are reporting double digit increases (i.e., North Carolina at 20 percent, Kentucky at 17 percent, Indiana at 15 percent, etc.).

This $6 billion in overall budget authority for WIC is the same funding level provided in the final FY 2020 appropriations package that was passed in December 2019. This funding level would ensure that WIC is able to serve all eligible participants without resorting to waiting lists, respond adequately to the increasing program participation, adjust for rising food costs due to tariffs and inflation, and assure responsible staffing levels throughout the pandemic. Consistent WIC funding levels is essential to provide adequate Nutrition Services and Administration (NSA) grants to states, allowing for robust public health programming, accounting for the rising costs of retaining credentialed nutrition professional staff, and managing the new costs of maintaining new electronic-benefit transfer systems, adopted pursuant to the Healthy, Hunger- Free Kids Act of 2010. NSA funding has been especially depleted as WIC programs assumed additional costs throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, including structural modifications to clinics and additional technology for staff to conduct remote services.

While this funding is a necessary step toward meeting program needs, the continued economic uncertainty and unclear participation trajectories may require additional investments. We urge appropriators to continue to monitor participation trends in the weeks ahead and, as necessary, include additional funding in any subsequent COVID response packages.

Within the $6 billion of overall funding for WIC, we urge you to provide dedicated set-aside funding for the following purposes. The requested set aside funding is consistent with both the Senate and House Agriculture appropriations funding levels:

  • $90 million for breastfeeding peer counselors as provided in the Senate and House FY 2021 Agriculture Appropriations bills: WIC’s highly successful Breastfeeding Peer Counselor Program is associated with increasing three key breastfeeding metrics: initiation, duration, and exclusivity.[i] After nearly a decade of flat-funding, the final fiscal year 2020 appropriations package expanded the federal investment by 50 percent to $90 million. This historic increase is being put to use to resolve significant coverage gaps, particularly affecting rural states – both creating jobs throughout the pandemic while also ensuring a vital touchpoint for participants as the program adapts during this uncertain time. We urge Congress to continue its investment in WIC’s breastfeeding promotion and support, ensuring that every eligible pregnant woman and postpartum mother has access to peer-to-peer support.
  • $14 million for infrastructure as provided in the Senate and House FY 2021 Agriculture Appropriations bills: Congress has consistently funded the infrastructure set-aside, which supports brick-and-mortar infrastructure repairs and improvements, special breastfeeding projects, and WIC’s competitive grants for innovative special projects to improve and streamline WIC service delivery. State agencies rely on special project grant funding to support tailored projects to enhance program access, including retention of younger children (aged 2-4), addressing transportation barriers in rural communities, and exploring telehealth technologies.

In addition to providing healthy foods, WIC provides critical health and social service referrals. As a result, children enrolled in WIC are more likely to be immunized on time, consume key nutrients, and have higher cognitive development scores than their peers not participating in WIC. Breastfeeding rates among WIC women are at record highs—71 percent initiation and a high of 31 percent at 6 months. Removing families from the program as a result of funding cuts deprives young children of access to healthy food, a healthy start in life, and the opportunity to thrive.

We strongly urge you to fully fund WIC and WIC FMNP in the FY2021 Agriculture Appropriations bill to continue protecting low-income women, infants, and children from hunger and improve their ability to access nutritious, balanced diets. Thank you for consideration of this request.

Sincerely,