Food aid for women and children may last slightly longer in a shutdown than first thought

States may have more options to keep the WIC program, which provides food aid to low-income women and children, afloat. (Credit: Tracy A. Woodward/The Washington Post.)

States may have more options for keeping the WIC program, which provides food aid to low-income women and children, afloat. (Tracy A. Woodward/The Washington Post.)

A food-aid program for poor women and children may have more life in it during the federal government shutdown than initially expected.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture provided further guidance to state agencies on funding available for the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). And it suggests that some resources will be immediately available to states.

“The upshot is that many states should be able to keep their WIC programs open through October using federal funds and possibly even longer using states funds,” Zoë Neuberger, a senior policy analyst with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said in an e-mail about the updated guidance. WIC provides states with grants for food aid, health care referrals and nutrition education for low-income women and children.

When the USDA first issued guidance late last week, WIC seemed vulnerable even in a short-term shutdown. States would be able to borrow funds from some sources to keep the program running for a week or so, according to that earlier guidance, but they “would likely be unable to sustain operations for a longer period.” Even contingency funds weren’t likely to be enough to get them through October, USDA predicted.

Tuesday’s guidance doesn’t make such predictions, but it elaborated on the available options, including carrying over funds from the fiscal year that ended on Monday or tapping a federal contingency fund.

While that’s good news for some programs, there’s still a lot of variation among the states.

“There’s no question that it’s a smart move on their part, but it’s not a guarantee overall,” said Geraldine Henchy, director of nutrition policy for the Food Research Action Center.

Apportioning WIC funding is notoriously difficult, she notes. In Utah, all WIC clinics are closed and new WIC appointments have been canceled. Whereas Arkansas negotiated with the USDA to receive contingency WIC funding for program administration and food vouchers for this week. That arrangement will be revisited weekly through the end of the month, according to a state health department spokesman.

Other such food assistance is safe for October, too. Funding for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, formerly known as food stamps, will continue in October under authority granted by the 2009 stimulus bill, USDA said in its weekend guidance. As will child nutrition programs including “School Lunch, School Breakfast, Child and Adult Care Feeding, Summer Food Service and Special Milk.”

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