Pierce County’s hungry need help as shutdown lingers

October 8, 2013 

The federal government shutdown is set to effectively dismantle funding for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC. This program provides health and nutrition support to pregnant women, new mothers, infants and children under 5 years of age who are in poverty or facing “nutrition risk.”

The Washington State Department of Health says that WIC “has enough funds to operate through the end of October” in this state, and “for people who want to help, we recommend contacting your local food bank.”

In Washington state, WIC reaches more than 195,000 women, infants and children each month and provides services to more than 315,000 people each year. The number of children served by Pierce County charitable food programs has more than doubled since the economic downturn in 2008. Through August of this year, 47,110 children ages 2 and younger have received vital, nutritious food.

Emergency food programs and distribution centers such as FISH Food Banks of Pierce County, Emergency Food Network and St. Leo’s Food Connection — which are serving individuals and families in need at record rates — are now gearing up to meet an inundation of new clients.

Nutritious foods provided by WIC — such as infant formula, baby food and cereal — are expensive to purchase, particularly with budgets already stretched thin. Food banks throughout Pierce County will be unable to meet the increase in these and other WIC program provisions such as milk and cheese simply due to the expense.

Food banks currently have a very limited supply of formula, if any, on the shelves. “Jennifer” recently called FISH Food Banks, crying uncontrollably.

“This is the month everything fell apart,” she said. Jennifer works full time, but has been unable to keep up on her house payments. She received a foreclosure notice, was down to her last $1.50, and was unable to purchase formula for her baby. She had never turned to a food bank before and expressed desperation and embarrassment.

After a trip to the food bank, Jennifer and her baby had the food and formula necessary to stay nourished and healthy until payday. Imagine the despair young families and service providers will experience when the substantially increased need cannot be met.

This crisis for families in need will soon be followed by cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Beginning Nov. 1, monthly SNAP benefits will be cut by an average of $29. The average SNAP benefit is already less than $1.50 per person per meal.

Our food programs, and others throughout Pierce County, are gratefully accepting donations of infant formula, baby food and cereal from individuals and organizations to help the most vulnerable in our communities survive.

We urge concerned citizens to reach out to legislators to advocate for our neighbors in need. Let’s place the priority back on the health of our communities and the thousands of children and families in Washington state.

Beth Elliott is executive director of the FISH Food Banks of Pierce County. Helen McGovern-Pilant is executive director of the Emergency Food Network. Kevin Glackin-Coley, director of St. Leo’s Food Connection, also contributed.

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