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USDA extends helping hand, but WIC worries grow

WASHINGTON - The high cost of food has brewed up anger toward governments worldwide; but closer to home, the WIC programs on two reservations are expressing gratitude for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and hoping for the best in the fiscal year 2009 budget, which begins Oct. 1.

Officially known as the national Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, WIC is a well-known presence in Indian country, providing nutrition for low-income pregnant and postpartum women and their children up to the fifth birthday. In the best of times, on often remote reservations and especially in the bitter winters of the Plains and woodland tribes and Alaska Native villages, WIC nutrition is indispensable. With food costs rising across the United States, the program's dollars aren't going as far anywhere. In Indian country, WIC recipients don't have a lot of alternatives.

''A lot of the people around here, we're 90 percent welfare dependent,'' said Irene Two Bears, head of the WIC program for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in Fort Yates, N.D. The WIC program there is well established, she said, enabling participants to purchase food at whatever price. ''The only place where we could get in trouble is where we're spending extra on each person,'' given the rising cost of food.

''But we're OK. USDA has been very good to us. We'll get through the year OK. ... They're watching out for us so we don't have to wait-list people like they do in some of the larger states.''

Wait-listing in WIC terms means that mothers and their infants and children have to wait for WIC assistance until funding becomes available to the local program. It's a scenario that scarcely bears contemplating in some of the harsher environments of Indian country.

At Cheyenne River in South Dakota as well, that scenario has been avoided. ''We already had to get pry about $40,000 from the Mountain Plains Regional Office [of the USDA in Denver],'' said Cynthia Cook, who runs the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe's WIC program in Eagle Butte, S.D. ''All I know is we went to a big [WIC] meeting last week where a lot of the larger states were on a waiting list. We're not that bad yet. We're covered to the end of the year'' - that is, FY 2008, ending Sept. 30.

After that, Cook said, there's still reason for concern. ''It depends how much we get Oct. 1.''

Rising food prices are the main reason for the concern, she said. But in places like Eagle Butte, far away from food distribution centers like Denver, Kansas City, Minneapolis and Omaha, the cost of fuel to truck in food contributes to still higher prices than elsewhere. The WIC programs feel it too.

''It has to do with the rising food costs, and that's because of the gas for the distributors,'' Cook said. ''I filled up this [WIC program] van and it was $4.08 a gallon. I don't know if it's going to be getting any better. Seventy-nine dollars to fill that van.''

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The Rev. Douglas Greenaway, executive director of the National WIC Association, said it is reasonable to assume out-of-the-way reservations feel a disproportionate impact from rising food and fuel costs, and he confirmed that the USDA has been good about adjusting to their needs.

''But that won't happen'' if $6.1 billion remains the WIC budget figure for FY 2009, he said. ''The figure is woefully inadequate to meet WIC caseloads.''

Back in March, shortly after the president's proposed budget figure became public, the National WIC Association proposed that $6.63 billion would be more like it. But now, Greenaway said, because of caseload growth and inflationary food prices, between $7 billion and $7.1 billion is needed.

The Agriculture Appropriations committees in both the House of Representatives and the Senate have held hearings in part on the WIC budget, Greenaway said. The House committee may have a bill ready with new WIC budget numbers by the July 4 congressional recess; the Senate committee probably not until after Labor Day. In any case, he added, speculation is widespread in Washington that no appropriations bills will be passed during the current presidential election year, leaving federal programs to operate on level funding under so-called ''continuing resolutions'' on the budget, an approach that could play out until a new Congress and presidential administration are seated in 2009.

Daniel Cordalis, legislative associate for the National Congress of American Indians, noted that 73 percent of funding in the recently enacted Farm Bill went to nutrition programs, raising the question of whether a kind of legislative momentum could relay itself to the pending Child Nutrition Act of 2009, which contains the WIC program. ''I would say yes. There's a lot of attention toward nutrition programs right now.''

Greenaway confirmed the percentage and all but seconded the analysis. But he noted that most of the nutrition funding in the Farm Bill went to food stamps, an entitlement program. WIC is a discretionary program. It's common knowledge that discretionary funding tends to be more threatened, across the board, than entitlement programs in lean years for the federal budget.

That said, Greenaway gave it as his experience that USDA makes WIC a priority and that Congress responds in kind. ''Congressional staff track caseloads right up to the day they're marking up [finalizing for committee passage] the bill. They're very mindful of this program.''

So are lawmakers themselves, among them Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont. The chairman of the Senate Finance Committee said of rising food costs: ''This is a problem we've got to approach from every angle. Long-term solutions to create more good-paying jobs, maintain a stable economy and reduce food prices must be combined with immediate action, such as nutrition programs, to help folks who are worried about what they'll feed their children tonight.''

Greenaway is mindful that the administration developed WIC budget numbers back in fall and winter 2007, unveiling them in February, well before WIC costs and caseloads began to spike.

So the prospects for a boost in WIC funding can't be counted out, but the unpredictable legislative process of a presidential election year has to be factored in as well. ''The crystal ball isn't clear.''