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Funding for infant nutrition program at risk

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

As the threat of a government shutdown looms, more than 600 organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, are urging Congress to protect a nutrition assistance program that helps new parents access healthy foods. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: For decades, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have supported WIC, a food assistance program for women with infants and children. Sarah Manasrah, who lives in Brooklyn, was referred to the program about five years ago, when she was pregnant with her daughter.

SARA MANASRAH: I was struggling a lot financially. I had trouble finding a good job with benefits, and my spouse was just starting the immigration process. So we didn't have stable housing or stable income.

AUBREY: Manasrah says it was a pretty stressful time. So when she found out that she was eligible for breastfeeding support, nutrition counseling and could receive free, healthy foods specifically tailored to her family's needs, it was a huge relief.

MANASRAH: When you're pregnant and you just had a baby, that's the hardest time of our lives. It's the most vulnerable time of our lives. And this support is some of the only support we get. And, you know, it's literally a life-saver. It's life-saving.

AUBREY: What it meant for her family is that instead of relying too much on cheaper, shelf-stable foods, her WIC benefits covered the cost of high-protein items such as eggs and tuna, as well as $50 a month to buy fresh produce.

MANASRAH: The big one really is fresh fruit. Fruit is extremely expensive, especially in New York. So having that cash benefit - it really lets us buy more to meet the needs of our growing kids. And that's been amazing.

AUBREY: But this support could be at risk. For starters, if the federal government shuts down, Nell Menefee-Libey of the National WIC Association says WIC benefits could be disrupted.

NELL MENEFEE-LIBEY: If the government shuts down, WIC would be put in a pretty tight spot pretty quickly. State WIC agencies will do everything they can to keep the lights on and the doors open, but obviously, that is a very short-term solution.

AUBREY: In addition to a potential shutdown, there's a longer-term challenge, too. As more new parents have enrolled, Menefee-Libey says Congress needs to allocate enough to cover all eligible recipients. But some lawmakers have proposed a cut to benefits.

MENEFEE-LIBEY: House Republicans have actually proposed slashing WIC's fruit and vegetable benefit by 56% for kids participating in the program.

AUBREY: Which she says would upend more than two decades of bipartisan support. Stacy Dean is the deputy under secretary for food, nutrition and consumer services at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

STACY DEAN: Every administration, every Congress, regardless of which party was in charge, has ensured that this program had adequate funding to serve all eligible moms and babies.

AUBREY: The cuts on the table are unprecedented, says Menefee-Libey, and she points to evidence showing the program works.

MENEFEE-LIBEY: We have documented evidence that it leads to better pregnancy outcomes, lower likelihood of early delivery and low birth weight, lower rates of childhood obesity.

AUBREY: And based on this track record, she hopes Congress will maintain funding to serve all of the nearly 7 million participants they expect next year in 2024. Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF STATIK SELEKTAH SONG, "TIME FEAT. JACK HARLOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.