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Republicans Aren’t Done Threatening the Hungry With Planned Cuts to Food Aid

The GOP’s latest effort to slash food aid for millions was blocked by Congress’s recent deal, but the battle isn’t over.

A girl pays for her mother's groceries using Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) tokens at the GrowNYC Greenmarket in Union Square on September 18, 2013, in New York City.

As the fiscal 2024 budget battle unfolded, congressional Republicans made their position clear — they wanted spending on anti-poverty efforts to be dramatically slashed. Among the cutback targets were two longstanding nutrition programs: the nearly 50-year-old Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC, and the 60-year-old Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), previously called food stamps. Critics of the plan, which would have cut WIC and restricted what SNAP recipients can purchase, vociferously argued that cutbacks would result in an immediate increase in hunger among children and families.

Their pushback was successful and, at least for now, the cuts have been averted. Thanks to organizing by grocers, anti-hunger groups and food companies, WIC was funded at $7 billion for the remainder of fiscal 2024. Similarly, restrictions on SNAP coverage were derailed. Nonetheless, when debates over fiscal 2025 expenditures get underway this summer, public benefits advocates expect Republicans to once again issue a call for slashes to the programs.

For their part, progressives and nutrition advocates are equally determined to protect SNAP and WIC, programs deemed lifelines with well-documented health benefits. WIC, in particular, has long been considered the gold standard, providing pregnancy support, postpartum care, and wellness checks and immunizations for children from birth until age 5.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) “WIC is one of the nation’s most successful and cost-effective nutrition intervention programs.” Nonetheless, the crux of the program is support for healthy eating.

Good Nutrition Supports Brain Development

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) stress the efficacy of nutritional support for optimal child growth and development. “Infant and child cognitive development are dependent on adequate nutrition,” the agency warns. Adequate nutrition is especially important during the first two years of life, the NIH explains, ensuring the strengthening of neurological pathways in the brain. In addition, young children need an array of minerals including choline, folate, iodine, iron, vitamin A and zinc, which WIC supports. “Children who don’t receive adequate nutrition are likely to underperform in school and have poor levels of cognition,” the NIH concludes.

Parents, for the most part, champion WIC for the positive difference it makes in their lives and the lives of their children.

Melanie Hall, an Arizona mother of two girls, ages 7 and 4, calls the program her “saving grace.” Each month, she told Truthout, she receives two bottles of apple juice, three gallons of milk, a pound of lentils or beans, three or four boxes of cereal, peanut butter, whole wheat bread, yogurt, cheese and a $24 voucher for fresh fruit and vegetables.

“I work part-time so I can be home with my kids and the benefits have been really helpful,” Hall said. “The program also gave me a breast pump, taught me how to use it and gave me a cookbook geared to making meals for children.”

Hall also receives SNAP but knows that when her youngest daughter turns 5, she will lose eligibility for WIC. “I will have to get food boxes from a local church,” she said. “Those boxes will then become my new saving grace.”

Her experience is not anomalous.

Ashley Trent is a California mother of five whose children range in age from 3 to 17. “I’ve received WIC on and off since my oldest was born in 2006,” she said. “He was born with an intestinal blockage, which needed surgery. Afterward, he needed a special formula that cost about $30 a can. WIC provided it because my son had a documented medical need. When I had my second and third children, their dad had a good job so we did not get WIC, but by the time I had my fourth we needed some help.”

Throughout, she told Truthout, WIC staffers have gone above and beyond, providing her with a baby stroller, nursing bras, a hand pump for expressing milk and baby bottles. “I really appreciate that they made the process of applying simple. They’ve been an amazing resource. My 5-year-old has aged out, so we only get WIC for our 3-year-old, but it is a helpful supplement. Even though my husband and I work, supporting a large family is difficult,” Trent said.

Montana resident Heather Denny knows this reality well. As a mother of seven, she, like Trent, has periodically relied on WIC. She first utilized the program in 1991 when her first child was born. After having a second child in 1993, she returned to college to complete her degree. “I was getting WIC and SNAP, working part-time, and going to school full-time. I was a single mom at that point and the SNAP office treated me in a degrading way,” Denny recalled. “WIC was different. The people at the WIC office were kind, supportive and helpful. After I had premature twins in 2006, a WIC nurse came to our home to check on their development. She also gave us children’s books and made sure each of the other kids was meeting appropriate height and weight markers.”

WIC’s provision of food items, she told Truthout, has taken some of the financial pressure off her and her partner and has made it easier to pay for groceries. “WIC helps me stretch my food budget,” she said. “You always want to fill your kids’ bellies, but if a bag of apples costs five dollars and five TV dinners cost five dollars, you’ll buy the TV dinners even if they’re unhealthy. WIC ensures that we have healthy food available.”

Like Denny, Pennsylvania resident Karen Eckrich is grateful to WIC for providing her family with access to a nutritious diet. “I was referred to WIC by the family planning clinic. They set me up with midwives who discovered that I was anemic. They put me on iron supplements and provided me with juices and healthy foods throughout my pregnancy. Later, they helped care for my three daughters until each one turned 5,” Eckrich said. “At every visit the staff gave my kids colorful butterfly Band-Aids after they pricked their fingers to check their iron levels. The workers made them feel special. We got cut off when my youngest turned 5 so we had to apply for other programs.”

Pregnancy and Postpartum Supports

Like WIC recipients, advocates of the program are similarly effusive. They’re also enraged by proposed cuts to the program.

Kim Moscaritolo, director of communications and advocacy at Hunger Free America, a national nonprofit that works to end hunger and poverty, told Truthout that “Congressional Republicans are using WIC as a bargaining chip to push the cuts they’ve wanted to impose for a long time. They argued that they’d fund WIC but only if they cut SNAP.”

Moscaritolo calls WIC “the most pro-life program in the U.S. It literally saves the lives of babies, children, and supports pregnant and postpartum adults.” Likewise, SNAP, which gives people living at or below 130 percent of federal poverty guidelines help purchasing groceries. More than 41 million people in 22.2 million households currently rely on SNAP — 12.5 percent of the U.S. population. An additional 8 million people, including almost half of all children under the age of 5, receive WIC. (Some folks receive both WIC and SNAP.)

But the Republicans have consistently ignored those who depend on these benefits to feed their families. Instead, Rep. Andy Harris (R-Maryland), chair of a House subcommittee on agricultural appropriations, has argued that SNAP cuts — which he proposed in exchange for preserving WIC in the latest round of budget negotiations — are imperative to promote better health. In an op-ed written with Angela Rachidi of the right-wing American Enterprise Institute, Harris zeroed-in on obesity, which he writes “disproportionately impacts low-income populations who rely on federal aid programs.” Congress can address obesity, the editorial states, by “reforming” SNAP. The “reform” involves restricting people with SNAP benefits from purchasing “unhealthy foods.”

The widely opposed proposal would bar SNAP from paying for soda, candy, cookies, chips, and other low-nutrient foods. Perhaps surprisingly, some of the fiercest critics of the plan are food stores. In fact, more than 2,500 businesses and trade associations, led by the National Grocers Association, sent Congress a letter opposing the idea.

The letter told lawmakers that the proposal “will strangle the program with needless red tape, with no meaningful public health outcome to show in return…. Grocery store cashiers will become the food police, telling parents what they can and cannot feed their families.”

SNAP and WIC beneficiaries as well as anti-hunger activists are in complete agreement and have pointed out that despite the pretext of promoting public health, the GOP’s agenda is actually little more than an attack on the poor.

Kelly D. Horton, chief program officer at the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), told Truthout that the GOP’s attack on SNAP rests with the fact that it is an entitlement program. This means that everyone who is income eligible and applies must receive benefits. This is not true for WIC, which, she said, is discretionary. “Pregnant or postpartum people at or below 185 percent of the poverty threshold can apply for WIC, but if state money runs out, they can be put on a waiting list,” she told Truthout.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and other fiscal watchdogs, as of mid-March WIC was already facing a deficit. They estimated that the program needed an additional $1 billion to meet current outlays for fiscal 2024 and warned that failure to allocate this sum would have left approximately 2 million fewer people — 28 percent of the total number of eligible pregnant and postpartum adults, newborns and children under age 5 — unserved by WIC. “This is the first time WIC has become partisan,” Horton told Truthout. “Until now, it has always been seen as a targeted public health intervention with support on both sides of the aisle.”

So, what provoked the change?

Punishing the Poor

Horton sees Republicans’ shift as resulting from a general post-COVID GOP pushback against all forms of pandemic relief, from increased SNAP benefits, to free meals for public school students, to the child tax credit. When these programs ended, increased numbers of people applied for benefits like SNAP, boosting the rolls. “The Republicans have clawed back on all pandemic support,” she said. “Meanwhile, the USDA has had to borrow money meant for later in the fiscal year in order to avoid WIC waiting lists.” Had Congress not increased funding for the program, there would have been a serious shortfall.

Despite the temporary save, Horton calls WIC a program in crisis.

What’s more, she sees SNAP as the first line of defense against hunger. “The program provides about $6 per person, per day, in benefits. Recipients use SNAP to purchase the same foods everyone else buys. They should have a choice when they go to the store and should be able to choose culturally appropriate foods for themselves and their families. The government should not tell them what they can’t eat.”

Ailen Arreaza, executive director of ParentsTogether Action, a 3 million member parent-led advocacy group, is working to promote policies to help families thrive. “Most families … care about, and are demanding, policies that affect their everyday functioning. They want programs that give them financial breathing room so that they do not have to choose between paying the light bill or buying food.”

Parents, Arreaza continued, want to raise their children in dignity which is why ParentsTogether Action prioritizes fighting for affordable child care, paid family and medical leave, nutritional support and affordable housing. “We want to remove some of the economic stressors that people live with,” she said. “Sadly, politicians seem more interested in supporting corporations and giving them tax breaks than in supporting families with children.”

Liz Theoharis, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, agrees and says that not only do the proposed cuts punish the poor, but the proposals serve as a distraction. “Despite the fact that close to half the people in our country are poor or low-income, politicians have successfully painted a picture that keeps the population from focusing on this injustice or on the policy failures that cause economic suffering,” Theoharis told Truthout. “We could end poverty tomorrow if the will was there. But poor and low-income people are a sleeping giant. If they mobilize, they can be a real threat to the status quo. Approximately one-third of the electorate is poor or low-income, and they can push to expand WIC and all social welfare programs. They can shift the political frame of the country.”

This, of course, is a long-term goal. For the time being, nutrition activists and WIC and SNAP recipients are pushing hard to preserve what we have and end the partisan scrambling that is threatening to take food away from millions.

“When people received more generous nutritional benefits, like they did during the COVID pandemic, they used these benefits to buy more fresh fruit, more fresh vegetables, and more fresh meat and poultry. This helped them become more food secure and kept them healthier,” Salaam Bhatti, FRAC’s SNAP director told Truthout. “If we wanted people to lead healthier lives, we’d increase SNAP and WIC benefits, not threaten to cut them.”

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