'Life and death': Mothers fear loss of WIC benefits in a government shutdown
The mothers told ABC News that the WIC program is a lifeline for their families.
Florencia Cariddi, a mother of a 10-month-old living in New York City, is one of nearly 7 million low-income women in the U.S. receiving assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children -- commonly known as WIC.
"I think that if I didn't have the program, it would be really, really hard for me," Cariddi, who lives paycheck to paycheck, told ABC News as she visited the WIC Nutrition Center at Ryan Health in New York City.
WIC is a discretionary grant program that is funded by Congress annually and, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, if lawmakers fail to reach a deal to avert a government shutdown this weekend, millions of pregnant and postpartum mothers and their children could lose access to necessities like formula, milk and other food products.
"That program expires, if you will, or stops immediately when the shutdown occurs," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a news conference Monday.
According to the USDA, the WIC program provides healthcare services and nutrient-rich food products to low-income pregnant women, breastfeeding women and children under the age of 5, including items like formula, milk, dairy products, rice and bread. Its services also include access to nutrition education, breastfeeding education and support, as well as vouchers to purchase WIC-approved fresh fruits and vegetables.
According to the USDA, the WIC program served about 6.3 million participants each month in 2022, including about 39% of all infants in the United States.
Cariddi said that when she was pregnant, she got access to healthy foods through WIC like milk, cheese, fruits and vegetables, and when her son was born, she was able to get formula, baby food and fresh produce to feed him during a crucial time for a baby's development.
"We receive, I would say, most of the food that [my son] eats every day [through WIC], because the formula -- it's really important for him … for his development," she told ABC News.
"There's people behind this program -- people who really need these benefits. We are talking about food. We are not talking about something fancy. It's a right, I think," she added. "I think everyone deserves to have food ..."
Vilsack said that amid a shutdown, the USDA has a contingency fund that could potentially fund WIC for a day or two, while some states have access to residual WIC funds and may be able to extend the program for days or weeks.
But Vilsak warned that during a shutdown, "the vast majority of WIC participants would see an immediate reduction and elimination of those benefits, which means the nutrition assistance that's provided would not be available."
Helene Rosenhouse-Romeo, the director of the WIC Nutrition Center at Ryan Health, told ABC News that although New York may have the funds to support WIC for some time, "benefits are in danger and resources are in danger should there be a protracted shutdown."
"It is very concerning," she said. "Our participants rely on our program to meet basic needs … we are a lifeline for our participants."
Catherine, who chose not to share her last name, spoke with ABC News as she arrived with her 2-year-old daughter, Sofia, at the WIC Nutrition Center at Ryan Health in New York City as a first-time participant in the program.
She said that she has been struggling to afford enough food for her daughter, who suffers from a heart condition and anemia and WIC is giving her a lifeline.
Catherine, who spoke with ABC News in Spanish through a translator, said that it would "break her heart" if she stopped receiving WIC benefits and urged lawmakers to "have some empathy, because they were once children."
"The kids are the future so it's important to nurture them," she added.
According to a February 2023 report released by the National WIC Association -- a nonprofit that supports the WIC program, WIC has seen a 12% nationwide increase in child participation following expanded access to remote services during the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to Rosenhouse-Romeo, Ryan Health's WIC program serves 3,000 participants in New York City each month and is one of approximately 89 agencies in the city that provides WIC services.
She said that since the pandemic, the center has seen "historic rises" in WIC participation at Ryan Health.
Rosenhoues-Romeo pointed to "inflation" and a surge in need as the reasons driving growth.
"I think families who thought, 'Oh, OK, I'm making do' realize that they're not making do anymore. And so they're coming," she said. "New York, in general, has been inundated with more need recently."
For Sarah Manasrah is a mother of two toddlers in Brooklyn, New York, who has been a participant in the program for nearly five years. She said losing WIC benefits would be a "huge crisis."
"I think people don't realize how devastating it's going to be when millions of parents wake up and realize 'I can no longer feed my baby or feed my kid because I don't have access to these benefits anymore,'" she told ABC News.
Manasrah said that WIC provided her with valuable breastfeeding services that allowed her to breastfeed exclusively, and also provided her with the funds to afford fresh fruits and vegetables during her pregnancy and later for her children.
"It actually is life and death for many families," Manasrah said.
"I just really hope that Congress does not let our babies go hungry, because that would just be the worst thing I can imagine," she added.
Cariddi said that she is "worried" about the impact that a shutdown could have on millions of women and children.
"I don't understand too much about politics, but I'm worried," she said. "If all these people suddenly lose all the benefits that they had, I think [it's going] to be really bad."