At $25 per can for special infant formula, the 26-year-old Weaver stay-at-home mom said that even with her husband teaching at two local colleges the family needed help paying $250 each month to keep her boys healthy.
They got that help from a federal program meant to protect vulnerable children from nutritional deficiencies, which can have lasting and lifelong health effects, advocates for the program say. The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC, is now itself in financial trouble, as the government shutdown has states across the nation struggling to find ways to keep their programs open.
Gavin and Brayden are now 2 years old, but Cochran said her family still receives about $60 worth of food each month through WIC to help feed her boys.
“It helps out tremendously. It’s definitely a privilege. I don’t feel like it’s our right, but it’s a privilege and I’m thankful for it,” Cochran said.
The Alabama Department of Public Health on Wednesday received $6.6 million in emergency funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to keep the program afloat through October, said State Health Officer Don Williamson.
“Right now it’s month-to-month,” he said.
Those emergency funds bring the state’s total for the program to about $9.5 million, Williamson said. The state spends about $9 million in federal money monthly on WIC, he said.
There remain many unknowns, Williamson said, but “clearly what we have now is we have another month, and that gives Congress another month to get this sorted out.”
The program provides money to pay for healthy foods and infant formula to low-income women who are pregnant or who have children under 5 years old.
To be eligible in Alabama a family of four must make less than $43,568 annually. Single parents must make $21,257 or less. County health departments issue vouchers that recipients use to buy certain foods such as milk, eggs, juice, fruit, vegetables, infant formula and breakfast cereal.
About 3,600 Calhoun County families received WIC vouchers between October 2012 and July 2013, said Amanda Martin, director of WIC for the Alabama Department of Public Health.
Cochran said her sons are older now, and that makes it easier for her to change their diets in the event WIC is shut down, but she worries about mothers with very young children.
“I don’t know what those moms are going to do,” Cochran said.
The end of WIC would also have an economic impact on grocery stores and other WIC-approved food sellers. Alabama received about $108 million in federal money from the program last year, according to Williamson.
Mike Sanders, who operates several Food Outlet grocery stores in Calhoun County, couldn’t say for certain how much revenue his stores bring in from the WIC program, but said “we have a good WIC business. A lot of young mothers receive WIC benefits.”
The Alabama Department of Health normally issues WIC vouchers for three months at a time. However, since the shutdown, the agency now issues vouchers for a single month.
Although issued in advance, each voucher can only begin to be used on certain dates. Charles Hammond, manager of the Food Outlet on Noble Street, said he usually sees large numbers of WIC shoppers the first day they’re able to use the vouchers.
According to the National WIC Association – the nonprofit education and advocacy arm of the WIC program – WIC provided help for about 143,000 pregnant women, mothers, children and infants in Alabama during the 2011 fiscal year. The average monthly food benefit per participant during that time was $62.
Douglas Greenaway, president of the association, explained that states are relying on unspent money from last year and what little extra money they can scrounge to keep WIC programs open.
“Many states received some contingency funds from the USDA, which was about $125 million in total,” Greenaway said.
That money will only help state WIC programs through October, he said.
The WIC program serves vulnerable mothers and young children who are at nutritional risk, Greenaway said. Too little quality nutrition can significantly increase premature births, and put those children at risk for lifelong health consequences, Greenaway said. Without WIC, mothers often water down formula or milk for their baby, which puts the child at tremendous health risks, he said.
“They’re low-income, and WIC, for many of them, is the difference between good nutrition and little or no nutrition. Food insecurity has significant health consequences,” Greenaway said.
Greenaway said 53 percent of all infants nationwide participate in WIC, and it’s because they’re vulnerable.
“So if we can’t find it in our hearts and in our pocketbooks to do the right thing for this vulnerable group of mothers and kids, I don’t know what to say,” he said.
Staff writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3563. On Twitter @Burkhalter_Star.