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Millions of Americans will lose food assistance if the government shuts down

The head of the USDA says most WIC beneficiaries would lose access to the program within a few days of a government shutdown, leaving them unable to buy healthy food.
Rogelio V. Solis
The head of the USDA says most WIC beneficiaries would lose access to the program within a few days of a government shutdown, leaving them unable to buy healthy food.

Updated September 26, 2023 at 2:13 PM ET

While the fight over federal spending is playing out on Capitol Hill, the effects of a potential government shutdown would be felt far beyond it.

House Republicans are struggling to pass the spending measures needed to keep the federal government open past Saturday. A pause on government services would have implications for everything from air travel to public health to national parks to food assistance.

The Biden administration is warning that a shutdown would put vital nutrition assistance at risk for the nearly seven million people who rely on the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).

The program offers healthy food, nutrition information, breastfeeding support and other resources to low-income pregnant and breastfeeding women and children up to age 5. It serves nearly half of the babies born in the U.S.

And it is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which would be unable to provide those benefits in the case of a shutdown.

"During an Extreme Republican Shutdown, women and children who count on WIC would soon start being turned away at grocery store counters, with a federal contingency fund drying up after just a few days and many states left with limited WIC funds to operate the program," the White House said Monday.

It released a breakdown of the number of WIC recipients at risk of losing assistance in each state, with California (972,418), Texas (786,686) and Florida (421,294) topping the list.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told Morning Edition that the "vast majority of beneficiaries will see an immediate cutoff" of WIC access, for most "within a matter of days."

Depending on how long a potential shutdown lasts, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) could be impacted too, Vilsack added. It would continue as normal through October, according to the USDA.

Vilsack hopes lawmakers will keep in mind that their actions have real consequences for the health of millions of moms and children.

"And that obviously has a long-term impact on the country," he said. "That's why these shutdowns are so devastating, because they are very, very disruptive to the lives of ordinary Americans who count on programs like WIC."

Other food-related programs are also at risk

A government shutdown would affect food access and nutrition in other ways, up and down the supply chain.

Vilsack is especially worried about farmers. Many rely on marketing loans, which help them hedge the price they get for the crops they're harvesting. Otherwise, Vilsack said, they would have to accept the price the market gives them and potentially lose profit, which "could be the difference between that farm family making a profit off the farm or not."

"And that's a real consequence as well of a shutdown, because every county office that would work with farmers to utilize the marketing assistance loan program will be shut down and farmers won't be able to access that program and a number of other programs," Vilsack added.

He noted that a shutdown would also delay the passage of the U.S. Farm Bill, which is reauthorized every five years and is set to lapse on Saturday.

While many of its key farming and social safety net programs have the mandatory funding to continue into the foreseeable future, Vilsack added, farmers need the consistency and certainty of the legislation — and Congress needs the USDA's expertise to draft it.

There's also the question of food safety. The Food and Drug Administration oversees the vast majority of the U.S. food supply, and one of its former leaders says a shutdown could hamper some of that work.

Former FDA Deputy Commissioner Frank Yiannas told Politico that during the last government shutdown of 2018-2019, the agency was able to respond to foodborne outbreaks but not conduct proactive inspections.

He said another shutdown would lead to a "ripple throughout the food system ranging from inspections, food testing, interactions with other regulators and the necessary interactions and consultation with the food industry at large."

Plus, a shutdown could also keep healthy food from reaching other populations who struggle to access it, from children to the elderly.

Free and reduced lunch programs across the country would pause, Politico reports. And federal payments to Meals on Wheels would be delayed, CNN reports, which could force programs to reduce, delay or suspend services altogether.

The leaders of Meals on Wheels and the National Association of Nutrition and Aging Services Programs warned in a joint statement last week that "a shutdown of any length could severely impact our nation's most vulnerable older adults facing hunger and isolation."

Vilsack says shutdowns hurt people "in a real way," whether it's the pregnant mother who needs WIC assistance, the young couple who loses their first house because they couldn't get a USDA home loan or the family who can't enjoy nature with their kids because a forest is closed.

"You can't get numb to the consequences of a shutdown that is reckless and unnecessary," he added. "And we shouldn't even be having this conversation if people just do their job."

The broadcast interview was edited by Jacob Conrad and produced by Mansee Khurana.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman
Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.