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N.C.’s WIC benefits: Why did they stop?

On Tuesday afternoon, as N.C. Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos was defending her troubled department at a state oversight hearing, DHHS quietly sent out a news release announcing that it was halting benefits for a program that helps pregnant women and new moms buy healthy food and formula for their children.

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women and Children, known as the WIC program, is a federally funded program administered by states. Because of the federal shutdown, North Carolina had enough funds to provide food vouchers only for those who had already claimed them for October. That left 20 percent of the approximately 264,000 people who receive WIC in North Carolina without assistance.

“Some of our most vulnerable citizens, pregnant and breastfeeding women, infants and young children, will be affected by the interruption of WIC services due to the federal shutdown,” Wos said in the news release.

But here’s what Wos didn’t say: North Carolina was the first state in the country to halt its WIC program. As of Thursday afternoon, it remained the only state to do so. But late Thursday, after media began inquiring, Wos announced that DHHS suddenly had found the money to resume the WIC program.

How have other states kept their WIC programs running uninterrupted? Last week, after several states said they might have to stop issuing WIC benefits, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the WIC program, came up with $125 million in shutdown contingency funds. “USDA is working with WIC State agencies to use all available funding resources to provide benefits to participants,” the agency said in a shutdown plan released last week.

What happened with North Carolina? Ricky Diaz, spokesman for N.C. DHHS, did not return a message left Thursday. In an emailed statement to the editorial board, USDA spokesman Bruce Alexander did not specify what USDA had offered North Carolina. “USDA is actively engaged in a conversation with the state of North Carolina to ensure their WIC program is reopened to all recipients,” he said.

Here’s what we do know: In counties across North Carolina, health agencies turned away women and pointed them toward area food banks in hopes they could get formula. In Mecklenburg County alone, about 200 people a day come to the health department for vouchers and counseling. Too many were unnecessarily told the vouchers were unavailable.

“I’m concerned,” said Rev. Douglas Greenaway from the non-profit National WIC Association. “I’m concerned for the mothers and babies in North Carolina.”

So are we, and we’re troubled by what seems to be another head-shaking first for our state. We were the first and only state to cut off federal unemployment compensation for the long-term jobless, turning away $780 million the feds were offering to unemployed North Carolinians. Now North Carolina has stumbled to the front once again.

Wos needs to explain why. Did DHHS initially decline money the USDA says it was offering to everyone else? Why did DHHS wrongly calculate that it was out of money in the first place? The “most vulnerable citizens” she mentioned Tuesday would surely like to know.

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