Tanya Shahjanian is a law student at NYU School of Law and guest contributor on this blog.

As the COVID-19 pandemic—and the resulting economic instability—persist into the fall season, underserved populations in the United States continue to suffer financially. Food insecurity remains high, and millions of families continue to rely on various federal food assistance programs to get by.

Fears of lost federal support for struggling mothers and their young children, a particularly vulnerable demographic, were quelled last week when the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) officially extended flexibilities for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). The extension, alongside the Continuing Resolution signed September 30, provides assurance that participants will continue receiving crucial food and health support during the on-going pandemic. These flexibilities were set to expire at the end of September.

Food Insecurity Among WIC-Eligible Populations

In the United States, the majority of those living in poverty are women, and this number has only increased as a result of the coronavirus pandemic’s unprecedented unemployment rates that disproportionately affect women. Black, Latinx, American Indian, and Alaska Native women experience the highest rates of poverty.

Households with children are statistically more likely to experience food insecurity. The pandemic is estimated to significantly increase the child hunger rate, with one in four American children experiencing food insecurity, a total of 18 million children.

Poor nutrition among pregnant women is associated with poor fetal development, gestational diabetes, hypertension, anemia, and other maternal health problems. Similarly, poor nutrition among young children can result in delayed cognitive development, behavioral problems, and increase risk of certain chronic illnesses.

USDA’s COVID-19 Response

In order to meet the altered needs and increased reliance on federal food support, the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) has granted a large number of program flexibilities and adjustments to aid states in providing much-needed food assistance to their residents. Most notably, flexibility of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) has proved crucial this summer, leading to an unprecedented growth in program participants. The national conversation has also centered on the importance of expanding child nutrition support, such as school lunch programs, during this uncertain time. Such programs are geared towards ensuring low-income children meet their nutritional needs, even when their homes suffer from food insecurity. Considering that childhood nutrition is even more critical in infancy, WIC exists to fill a vital hole in the safety net not met by these other programs.

As defined by FNS, WIC “serves to safeguard the health of low-income pregnant, postpartum, and breastfeeding women, infants, and children up to age 5 who are at nutritional risk by providing nutritious foods to supplement diets, information on healthy eating including breastfeeding promotion and support, and referrals to health care.” More than half of infants in the U.S. benefit from WIC.

WIC agencies initially struggled to meet needs during the pandemic, largely because the program required families to visit a local office every few months to continue to qualify for their benefits. FNS issued temporary waivers for such WIC requirements, allowing online approval. This move has revitalized the program, which had been seeing a decline in participation in recent years. Other key WIC flexibilities implemented this year include remote benefit issuance waivers, flexibility in food package requirements, and additional options for pick-up of food packages.

The USDA’s September 21st announcement extending all previously enacted WIC waivers secured these flexibilities until 30 days after the end of the nationally declared public health emergency. This extension should provide some stability to participants of the program.

A key problem with the program continues to threaten WIC participation during this time. Unlike SNAP, WIC does not allow recipients to shop online for food or, in many—though not all—instances, use self-checkout lanes; they must complete their transaction in front of a cashier. This has been problematic for mothers worried about the risks associated with shopping in person and the limitation has raised questions of program equity.

FNS states that it is currently working with state agencies to find ways to allow WIC transactions to occur without the presence of a cashier. This and other aspects of the program are still being ironed out, but these recent developments indicate that USDA is aware of the unique challenges WIC participants face and is working to ease the burden of using benefits during the continuing pandemic.

For more information about the WIC COVID-19 Waivers in place (including state-specific information) please visit: https://www.fns.usda.gov/programs/fns-disaster-assistance/fns-responds-covid-19/wic-covid-19-waivers

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