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But a new study reveals that despite increasing demand, states are already struggling to reach all the women, children and infants eligible for the program.
A couple years ago, just a little more than one-third of eligible women and children in Utah were receiving assistance to buy food. But in the last three months, that number has grown by more than 10%.
“That is remarkable growth for us. We don't often see that level of increase,” said JoDell Geilmann-Parke, vendor manager for Utah’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC.
An average of 36,600 women, infants and children were on Utah’s program in 2021. That was about half as many as in some other states, according to a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture study. In Vermont, for example, nearly three-fourths of low-income women, children and infants were getting money to buy food through WIC.
But rising food costs and the end of several federal assistance programs, including those for child care and rent, have driven up hunger across the nation, and more people are relying on WIC than before, even in states where relatively few had previously been turning to the program for help.
In Utah, the number has increased by almost 10,000 people since 2021, said the state’s Office of Maternal and Child Health.
The story is the same in New Mexico, where only a third of people who are eligible for the program were actually receiving assistance in 2021—the lowest rate in the nation, according to the USDA. But the number signing up for the program has grown by 10,972, or an 18% increase, in just the last year and a half.
Ohio, where 39% of those eligible for WIC were on the program in 2021, has also seen a jump. Roughly 22,000 more people have signed up for the program—a 13% increase—despite still requiring most people to go into the program’s offices to reload their cards (a process the state is working to move away from).
“We have talked to emergency food pantries across the state,” said Gina Cornia, executive director of Utahns Against Hunger. “Everybody is seeing an increase in demand, and in some cases doubling what they were doing last year.”
These increases in demand in states like Utah, New Mexico and Ohio come as concerns around the country grow that states may have to begin turning women, children and infants away. Funding from the federal government continues to be insufficient to meet the growing demand, and Congress has been unable to reach an agreement on the coming year’s federal budget. The two continuing resolutions passed to keep the government open did not increase WIC funding.
To try to deal with the shortfall, the Sept. 30 continuing resolution did allow the USDA to give states four months of funding to be used over three months. However, the department warned at the time that as a result of higher spending, it will run out of money unless Congress approves more funds for the program.
Conservatives in the House last week backed off from their demands to dramatically cut spending, signaling they might be willing to stick to the deal they struck in June to increase the debt ceiling. Under that agreement, the House and Senate said they’d keep spending at roughly the same levels as last year, which means WIC might not receive more funding next year to meet the growing demand.
Whether states get more funding or not, they can improve how they reach those that are eligible.
The USDA study looks at eligibility and the reach of programs in 2021. At the other end of the spectrum from New Mexico and Utah is California. The Golden State had the second highest participation rate after Vermont, with two-thirds of eligible women and children receiving assistance. North Carolina was the next highest at 61.7%, followed by Minnesota at 61.5% and Massachusetts at 61.2%.
Those five states with the highest rates automatically reload participants' cards each month. But that’s not the case in nine states, which still require WIC recipients to go to the program’s offices to refill their cards.
“There are areas that are very rural,” said Geraldine Henchy, director of nutrition policy at the Food Research & Action Center. “A lot of the people who live in those areas are poor. They have limited transportation. That is a big barrier for them to be able to participate because they just can't get to the office, especially when gas prices go up.”
David Morgan, a spokesperson for New Mexico’s Department of Health, acknowledged that the requirement that recipients visit an office has kept some people from being in the program. “Even with more than 50 public health offices statewide,” he said, ”that requires travel for some.”
But New Mexico will begin reloading the cards online next year. And the Ohio Department of Health says it is studying how to automatically reload WIC cards and is “hopeful” that after the fix more eligible women will sign up for the program.
“The Ohio WIC program would like to see every eligible Ohioan participate, and we strive to encourage more participation,” the department said.
Automating the process led to an increase in eligible participants in North Carolina. The state’s Department of Health and Human Services said the number of women and children receiving WIC grew by more than a fifth from 210,580 at the start of the pandemic in February 2020 to 254,813 two years later. The percentage of eligible families receiving the assistance also grew from about half in 2019 to 61.7 percent in 2021.
The increase was in part because the state stopped requiring recipients to visit WIC offices in person during the pandemic. When they ceased reloading the cards online following the end of the public health emergency, the state began seeing “WIC participation decrease as a result,” the department said.
But now demand is growing. “We know that food prices remain high, and this continues to strain families’ budgets,” the department said.
Another way to reach eligible women and children is to dispel misinformation about the program and improve outreach. In New Mexico, there’s a “heightened level of fear among immigrant and mixed-status families,” Morgan, the spokesperson, said. “Due to this fear, families have sought to withdraw from WIC services.”
Though researchers at the Urban Institute did not examine WIC benefits, they found in a recent survey that 1 in 6 immigrants with children said they did not take advantage of other types of aid, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, because they feared it would jeopardize their ability to get green cards. Causing the fear, the study said, was the Trump administration’s 2019 “public charge” rule, in which immigrants could be denied permanent citizenship if they received or were expected to receive SNAP, housing or other public benefits.
To make sure immigrants know they can receive WIC, New Mexico has been holding health fairs and running radio ads to let immigrants and low-income women know about the program.
The state has also been streamlining the process. New Mexico last year became the first in the nation to automatically assess if a family qualifies for WIC if they apply to receive SNAP, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, or Medicaid benefits. The state WIC office also created an app earlier this year to let participants schedule appointments, view benefits and upload documents.
Kery Murakami is a senior reporter for Route Fifty, covering Congress and federal policy. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @Kery_Murakami