Why Congress is struggling to fund WIC

Everything in Washington is getting harder – even funding a bipartisan program meant to support low-income moms and babies. Is Congress about to kick the can down the road again?

A mom with long brown hair holds a toddler in the produce section of a grocery store. They are both holding peaches.s

Happy Friday and welcome to Food Fix! Wow, did you all have thoughts about last Friday’s dive into prenatal vitamins. I’m still working through the emails, but I’ve noticed some common themes: Deep frustration that the products aren’t more regulated/standardized, lots of opinions about which nutrients should be included (Calcium! Choline! Iodine! DHA!), and some questions about whether we even need prenatal supplements. 

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Alright, let’s get to it –



Why Congress is struggling to fund WIC

Congressional leaders are scrambling to work out a deal to keep the government funded past March. While we await news of some kind of grand compromise – or not, it’s not looking particularly good at the moment – one of the biggest questions in food world is whether lawmakers will include extra money to fully fund the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC.

The Biden administration has repeatedly warned that WIC will face a benefits cliff, potentially forcing administrators to impose waitlists, later this year if Congress does not come up with more than $1 billion in additional funding for the program, which targets nutrition aid to pregnant women, infants and young children. In 2022, the program served 6 million individuals each month, including roughly 40 percent of all infants born in the U.S. 

I haven’t talked to anyone who thinks Congress will match the Biden administration’s funding request, but it does seem likely that the program could get hundreds of millions in additional dollars, which would certainly relieve some anxiety around this issue.

No free lunch: Politico reported last week, however, that there could be a controversial trade for stepped-up WIC funding: Republicans may get a pilot program in the spending package that would test restrictions on what foods you can buy with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits in up to five states – a contentious idea that’s never been tested.

As I wrote on Tuesday, I haven’t confirmed that such a deal has been made. But if both WIC funding and a SNAP restrictions pilot are in the final bill, that’s going to be a sour deal for the food industry and some anti-hunger groups who have long banded together to fight any efforts to open up SNAP to new restrictions. (Sure, it’s a pilot program, but pilots are often seen as a Trojan Horse.)

“Congress needs to cut the partisan games and stop gambling with the well-being of families. The time for political distractions is over,” said Georgia Machell, interim president and CEO of the National WIC Association, in a statement about the reported deal. “Unnecessary and harmful political riders risk undermining funding the success of a program that has enjoyed decades of overwhelming bipartisan support.”

The National Grocers Association this week urged congressional leaders to reject the SNAP pilot. “Independent grocers support SNAP choice because it maintains an already successful program and ensures families can shop with the same dignity and ease as any other grocery customer,” said Stephanie Johnson, vice president of government relations at NGA.

Restrictions hot potato: As CNN reported Thursday, “Not everyone opposes the concept of the pilot program. Two former USDA secretaries said at the National WIC Association’s policy conference on Tuesday that the food stamp program should focus more on nutrition.”

“‘SNAP can do a better job of giving people choices and education which are focused on better quality, higher nutrients, more vitamins, to fight the diseases … obesity, cardiovascular diseases and others,’” said Dan Glickman, who served as agriculture secretary during the Clinton administration, noting that a pilot program should not be too onerous on recipients nor demonize them.”

Ann Veneman, who served as agriculture secretary during the George W. Bush administration, endorsed making SNAP more like WIC, which provides only certain staple foods like milk, whole grain bread and eggs: “If you could make the SNAP program look more like the WIC program, we could probably have better health outcomes and less money being spent on health care in this country,” she said, per CNN.

Details TBD: The spending bill negotiations are pretty much a black box at the moment. In Washington, silence is usually a good thing. It often means that real progress is being made, or that a deal could be close (though, again, what’s leaked out lately doesn’t seem especially rosy). But the fact that there’s any question about whether WIC will be fully funded is notable. The program, long supported steadfastly by members of both parties, hasn’t faced a benefits cliff in memory. Other nutrition programs like SNAP have grown increasingly partisan, but WIC has generally steered clear of the polarization.

How did we get here? WIC is somewhat unique in that it doesn’t just automatically expand if more people qualify for the benefits, which is how most government entitlement programs work.  It’s technically a discretionary aid program, so Congress sets aside a flat funding level based on what’s estimated to be needed. For a long time, there’s been more than enough funding set aside, which gave the program a lot of breathing room. Overall participation was also lagging, which made funding even less of an issue. 

The pandemic, however, changed everything. Not only did participation go up, so did program costs. Food inflation drove increased spending, and we had a massive infant formula crisis that cost the program, which currently purchases roughly half of all infant formula sold in the U.S. Congress also beefed up the program’s benefit for fruits and vegetables, which substantially increased the tab.

Several years ago, this type of spending increase probably wouldn’t have been too much of an issue, but today it’s hard to get more money for a safety net program when hardline conservatives are trying to cut government spending across the board. While WIC is still a bipartisan program, the fact that the Biden administration and congressional Democrats have made WIC funding a major priority also makes it a prime point of leverage for Republicans.

Dust yourself off and try again: By the way, if this whole spending standoff sounds familiar, that’s because it’s Congress’ fourth attempt at trying to fund the government for fiscal 2024 (which began Oct. 1 of last year). Lawmakers have relied on a series of short-term spending bills to temporarily keep the lights on at federal agencies – AKA kicking the can down the road – while they negotiate a final spending agreement. One big concern for WIC supporters is that Congress could keep the entire government limping along with further short-term fixes without addressing the program’s projected shortfall.

Everything is getting harder in Washington. We don’t reauthorize child nutrition programs anymore (this used to be a routine thing). The farm bill is in flux. Congress is barely keeping the federal government open. Everything is more complicated and more partisan, even funding WIC.


What I’m reading

James Beard Foundation launches campaign to speed federal action on climate change (Restaurant Business). “The James Beard Foundation (JBF) on Tuesday announced the launch of a campaign to ignite government action on climate change, focusing on the toll it is taking on independent restaurants and the farmers who supply them,” reports Patricia Cobe. “‘Climate Solutions for Restaurant Survival’ aims to unite chefs across the country to raise awareness, educate federal policymakers and galvanize action to mitigate the impacts of climate change. The campaign was spurred by a new report from The George Washington University’s Global Food Institute, founded by renowned chef, humanitarian and food policy activist, José Andrés. (P.S. Andrés missed the official launch of the campaign, but he filmed a video message here.)

SNAP recipients can now shop at an online-only grocery store (Axios). “SNAP recipients will soon be able to use their funds at an online-only grocery store for the first time,” reports Alex Fitzpatrick. “Many in the SNAP program — commonly referred to as ‘food stamps’ — live in food deserts where it’s hard to find high-quality groceries near home. Thrive Market will begin accepting SNAP EBT payments from users across the contiguous U.S. on Feb. 26, the company says. The move follows nearly a decade of advocating to the USDA (which oversees SNAP), and after various pilot programs involving retailers with mixed online and brick-and-mortar operations.”

It’s been 30 years since food ate up this much of your income (Wall Street Journal). “The last time Americans spent this much of their money on food, George H.W. Bush was in office, ‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day’ was in theaters and C+C Music Factory was rocking the Billboard charts,” reports Jesse Newman and Heather Haddon. “Eating continues to cost more, even as overall inflation has eased from the blistering pace consumers endured throughout much of 2022 and 2023. Prices at restaurants and other eateries were up 5.1% last month compared with January 2023, while grocery costs increased 1.2% during the same period, Labor Department data show. Relief isn’t likely to arrive soon. Restaurant and food company executives said they are still grappling with rising labor costs and some ingredients, such as cocoa, that are only getting more expensive.”

Ozempic to send foodmakers looking for healthier offerings (Bloomberg). “Companies selling unhealthy foods need to tweak their business models to counter the growing popularity of weight-loss drugs – or risk alienating investors, according to the latest Bloomberg Markets Live Pulse survey,” report Lisa Pham, Naomi Kresge and Agnieszka de Sousa. “Nearly three out of four respondents said companies making or marketing sugary, fatty or ultra-processed foods should revise their game plans, either by shrinking portions, adjusting recipes or offloading assets altogether. Just over a quarter of the 303 respondents think Big Food can wait out the emerging threat from appetite-suppressing drugs like Zepbound, Ozempic and Wegovy.”

The Ozempic effect gives Sweetgreen a boost, survey finds (Bloomberg). “One thing Ozempic won’t hurt: sad desk salads,” writes Madison Muller. “Despite the appetite-suppressing effects of drugs like Wegovy and Zepbound, people reported going to Sweetgreen Inc. more frequently after starting GLP-1 medications, according to a 300-person survey conducted by William Blair. It was the only restaurant in the survey that saw a net increase in frequency of visits from those taking the shots. Weight-loss shots have been a boon for drugmakers Eli Lilly & Co. and Novo Nordisk A/S, but food brands are fretting about the prospect of a less hungry customer base.”


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