PLATTSBURGH — Citing rising demand during the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) recently called for the Fiscal Year 2021 appropriations bill to include $6 billion for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, known broadly as WIC.
"At a time when families are facing historic levels of hunger, funding WIC is one of the smartest investments that we can make," the senator said during a Zoom call with reporters last week.
Gillibrand said children in the WIC program are more likely to be immunized on time, eat key nutrients and have higher cognitive development scores. WIC additionally makes referrals to other health and social services, she added.
"This program must have the resources it needs to meet this rising demand and I will fight to ensure this critical funding is included in the final omnibus package."
INCREASE IN CASES
The senator noted how upstate New York food banks prepared thousands of meals and bags of groceries around Thanksgiving.
Additionally, she said, one in five mothers with children younger than 12 is food insecure. For such families, WIC is a safety net and a lifeline, Gillibrand said.
"Before COVID, WIC’s caseload had been declining. But with the pandemic and economic disruption it has caused, WIC providers are reporting increased participation."
She added that New York State has seen a 3 percent increase in cases since February; other states have seen double-digit increases.
"State funding has been depleted over the past few months as WIC programs worked to meet both rising demand and the rising costs of operating during a pandemic, including modifying clinical spaces and purchasing additional technology to provide remote services," Gillibrand said.
"Funding the programs at this level would ensure that WIC can avoid putting families on waiting lists. It can adjust for rising food costs due to tariffs and inflation, and it can assure responsible staffing levels throughout the pandemic."
Gillibrand said she and her colleagues want portions of the $6 billion to be set aside for specific programs.
That includes $90 million for WIC's breastfeeding peer counselor program, which would match last year's historic investment that came after almost 10 years of flat funding, she added.
The increase has helped resolve coverage gaps, particularly in rural areas, as well as create jobs during the pandemic, Gillibrand continued.
"Continuing this funding at $90 million levels will ensure that every eligible pregnant woman and post-partem mother has access to that critical peer-to peer-support."
Gillibrand is also urging Senate leadership to include $20 million in discretionary funding for the WIC Farmers Market Nutrition Program.
"That program provides low-income pregnant and post-partem women the vouchers or electronic benefits to buy fresh produce from authorized farmers and farmers markets."
SHOULD BE NONPARTISAN
Gillibrand contended that funding for WIC has remained flat "because people don't care about hunger," and said she has to fight tooth-and-nail each year during Farm Bill negotiations to get WIC and SNAP resources.
She said increasing access to food has not been a bipartisan goal, which she finds troubling.
"Obviously it’s not about whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican when you’re hungry and your children are hungry. It’s one of those things that should be nonpartisan. Unfortunately, it’s been on the chopping block by a lot of Republican budgets for a long time."
She hopes that representatives like Senate Maj. Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) have heard from enough constituents about the need for the nutrition benefits that they will change their tune.
"Our goal is to hopefully lift up the voices of those who have not been heard or those who have been voiceless in this so that senators across both parties understand how urgent the crisis is," Gillibrand said.
"There are Republicans who have been very good allies in this and I’m hopeful that they will be heard in this debate as well."
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