SNAP & WIC programs safe for now, needing long-term certainty, advocates say

Nov. 15, 2023, 6 a.m. ·

A woman with pink hair dressed in black leans against a produce stand in a grocery store that's stocked with fruits, vegetables and juices.
(Archive Photo by Elizabeth Rembert, Nebraska Public Media News)

Listen To This Story

U.S. Department of Agriculture officials say a continuing resolution dodged the worst case scenario for food assistance programs if the government shuts down Nov. 17. Still, food advocates warn that Congress needs to act quickly and do more to make sure programs are fully funded.

Funding for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children – commonly called WIC – would have ended within days if the government had shut down at the end of September.

This time, as the country faces the possibility of a government shutdown at the end of the week, funding for WIC is secure, at least through the end of the year.

Yet food advocacy organizations warn that if a shutdown were to drag on, families would be impacted.

“We've really been trying to communicate with our partner agencies in our service territory, that they could see an influx in people coming into their pantries and needing services,” said Melanie Hager, the St. Louis Area Food Bank’s director of community engagement.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service said a continuing resolution passed by Congress on Sept. 30 included enough funding to keep WIC whole through the end of the year.

Geraldine Henchy, the director of Early Childhood Nutrition Programs at the Food Research and Action Center, said even with the funding through the end of the year, WIC officials likely will need to tighten spending.

“If there isn't another continuing resolution on the 17th, or if that continuing resolution doesn't offer them more money than they have now, then what (some states are) going to do is — they're gonna cut back on that fruit and vegetable benefit. So, they'll cut it back down to the pre-COVID level,” Henchy said.

States may also choose to put off outreach efforts that aim to get more people to sign up for programs such as WIC and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly called SNAP.

Thomas Gremillion is the Food Policy Director for the Consumer Federation of America. He said if a shutdown were to last past the end of December, it also could affect SNAP recipients. And that, he said, would likely affect prices at the grocery store.

“Forty-one million Americans receive SNAP benefits,” he said. “If they're not able to shop in the stores where they normally shop, that's going to be very disruptive to the industry. And, you may see the industry making adjustments and having to raise prices as a result.”

Congress gives control to the executive branch to fund SNAP in emergencies, such as the anticipated shutdown in late September. But Rep. Don Bacon, R–Nebraska, who is on the House Agriculture Committee, is hopeful the government will remain open.

"(Speaker Mike Johnson) wants a simple plan that will pass the Senate," Bacon said in an email to Harvest Public Media.

He said the tough fights over appropriations and the border should be saved for later — not when the government is in threat of being shutdown.

Rep. Jonathan Jackson, D–Illinois, is also on the House Ag Committee and said a new SNAP funding proposal, which is included in the farm bill, is expected to be introduced on the floor in January.

Jackson said the farm bill shouldn’t be the target of any future spending cuts proposed by Republicans.

“The farm bill should be off the table. It should pass. We should agree to — we should vote on the funding level that we all agreed to in the spring, and people should not hold it up on the Republican side,” Jackson said.

The proposed farm bill agreed upon in the spring totals $1.5 trillion dollars, he said.

Hager said it’s important that people continue applying for benefits if they qualify.

“So we’re still encouraging people to submit applications and to apply. We’re also encouraging people not to panic, that we do have resources and pantries available to help in these times of need,” Hager said.

To see if you’re eligible for WIC, visit the USDA WIC PreScreening Tool.

To see if you’re eligible for SNAP, visit this quick guide.