Potential WIC funding shortage hits home

With a playful monkey, children's books, and pretty flowers, the waiting room for Brown County WIC fits the pre and postnatal care demographic it covers. WIC programs across Minnesota are currently facing the looming threat of funding shortfalls, which could see several families in Brown County and beyond turned down for needed aid.

NEW ULM — A potential WIC funding shortfall could impact Brown County families who need assistance.

Brown County Public Health Director Jaimee Brand said WIC is one of the many programs Brown County Public Health offers. She said WIC focuses on helping pregnant women and new mothers.

“It’s a nutrition and breastfeeding program that helps eligible pregnant women, new mothers, babies, and young children,” Brand said. “WIC provides nutrition education, counseling, and support. If a mom is breastfeeding, we offer support for breastfeeding, nutritious foods, and we refer on to other healthcare providers or social services if we see additional needs are there.”

Currently, Minnesota WIC programs as a whole are feeling the looming threat of a potential funding shortage. Minnesota WIC Director Kate Franken said progress on a resolution to the problem has stalled.

“WIC and other federal programs are authorized through a continuing resolution that expires March 1,” she said. “We’re in a waiting game for a decision by Congress, on funding for the federal fiscal year 2024 budget.”

Franken said she hopes there is action from Congress before the March 1 deadline, but in her experience decisions have gone down to the wire. In her time, she said there has not been a potential shortfall like this ever.

“In prior years we’ve returned food funds to USDA at the end of the fiscal year,” Franken said. “We didn’t use the full grant allotment. Last year was the first time that we had to request additional funding from USDA. We did receive those funds so we could continue covering all the food costs for WIC participants in our state.”

As for why a potential shortfall is coming now, Franken cited increased numbers and rising food costs as factors.

“We saw a steady participation increase in our state and across the nation last year,” she said. “That was really exciting to serve more people that are eligible. That occurred alongside higher food costs in the marketplace. That plays into needing additional funding to cover serving more people and higher food costs.”

This perilous situation comes as WIC enters its 50th year as an operating program. Franken said it is a concerning place to be, given the program’s impact.

“WIC is really one of the most effective health and nutrition programs,” she said. “We know for every dollar spent in WIC during the prenatal period, there’s a payoff in the investment of Medicaid costs. We know with rising maternal mortality, hunger, and food insecurity, it’s a critical program to help support young families.”

In rural areas like several places in Brown County, Franken said transportation challenges and food deserts are particular dangers for expectant and new mothers.

“Many of the families we serve can have transportation challenges,” she said. “When you’re in a rural community where there’s longer distances to to get to a WIC clinic, or grocery store, it can be harder to get connected and enrolled. Food deserts in some of these areas, people have to travel a pretty long distance to get to a grocery store for the healthy foods they need.”

Brand said they have begun strategizing but there is not much they can do currently, while they wait for word and direction from the Minnesota Department of Health.

“Whenever there is discussion about a program maybe losing funding or reducing funding in general, we always start strategizing as soon as we can,” she said. “This particular situation, we are really waiting for the Minnesota Department of Health to help make some decisions about what that might look like locally here.”


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