North Carolina First State Forced to Turn Away New WIC Enrollees

Thanks to the federal government shutdown, North Carolina has run out of funds to allow residents to sign up for the program that provides food vouchers and nutrition information to women and children.
by | October 9, 2013
Maria Prince, a medical resident at the John's Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health, and her husband receive Woman, Infants and Children benefits.
Maria Prince, a medical resident at the John's Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health, and her husband receive Woman, Infants and Children benefits. AP/Jacqueline Malonson

North Carolina has become the first state to halt new enrollment in a federal nutrition program for low-income women and children during the federal government shutdown as it works to make the most of remaining funding.

The $7 billion Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children—better known as WIC—provides food vouchers, nutrition information and health care referrals through more than 10,000 local agencies, clinics and state health departments. Of the 8.9 million people who received WIC benefits nationwide in the 2011 fiscal year, about 7 million were children and infants, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which funds the program.

North Carolina serves almost 264,000 people a month on an annual budget of $205 million that’s completely funded by the federal government, which cut off funding last week when Congress failed to pass a spending measure to open the new fiscal year that started Oct. 1.

“As of the close of business yesterday, new benefits, new vouchers have stopped,” said Ricky Diaz, a spokesman for the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. “However, using the funding (we already have), we’ll be able to cover existing vouchers that have already been issued through the month of October.”

READ: Full coverage of the federal shutdown's impact on states and localities.

The USDA said in its  shutdown contingency plans that it would provide reserve and carryover funding to state agencies to keep them running only through late October. Despite initial fear among some statesand a brief WIC shutdown in Utah, states have largely said they’re confident they can run their programs as normal through late October.

 “I am not yet aware of other states experiencing the same challenge that North Carolina is experiencing,” said Rev. Douglas Greenaway, president of advocacy group the National WIC Association.

Diaz said his department made the decision to keep existing benefits going as long as possible. “I think we’re making the decision in order to minimize the impact of this shutdown,” he said.

Other states are also sounding the alarm as October marches on with little reason for hope that Democrats and Republicans in Congress will budge. Michael Schommer of the Minnesota Department of Health said suspending WIC not only hurts the approximately 125,000 people the program serves every month but also the private businesses that provide food, medication or health care to enrollees.

“We have 1000 food vendors and 150 pharmacies. (That’s) $300,000 in (economic) activity every day,” he said. His department expects to have enough funding through sometime around the end of October. That will include new enrollees.

In North Carolina, the number is higher: $16.6 million in food purchases at more than 2,000 vendors every month, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services.

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