#7: The Urgent Need to Protect WIC with Nell Menefee-Libey

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Show Notes

In this episode, our hosts Bruce Lesley and Messellech “Selley” Looby speak with Nell Menefee-Libey, public policy manager for the National WIC Association. The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, better known as WIC, supports healthy pregnancy, healthy postpartum recovery and optimal child development. The National WIC Association represents state and local WIC agency staff across more than 12,000 direct service sites and the nearly 7 million participants served by WIC. The program has led to significant measurable improvements in cognitive development scores, obesity rates, overall quality of diet and other outcomes. WIC has traditionally enjoyed strong bipartisan support, but for the first time in this millennium, Congress is threatening to turn its back on the families who rely on the program. The House and Senate are currently considering appropriations bills that underfund the program and that inflict major cuts on fruit and vegetable allowances. 

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Full Transcript

Bruce Lesley  00:03

Messellech, how did Santa’s like his cookies this year?

Selley Looby  00:07

You know, we started testing recipes after Thanksgiving. And so by Christmas, we had a really good sugar cookie recipe and chocolate chip cookie recipe. So I think Santa was happy. We threw in some carrots for his reindeer. So it was good situation

Bruce Lesley  00:23

for our family as well. Holidays are such a big focus around food and family getting together

Selley Looby  00:30

the amount of money I pushed out between butter, vanilla extract, and actual real chocolate. Like it’s a thing, a whole other line item in addition to gifts and full on meals. Absolutely.

Bruce Lesley  00:44

I can’t even imagine what it’s like for people that have, you know, less means than we do at this time.

Selley Looby  00:50

Yeah, I mean, I feel like families are really forced to get creative. I mean, even us, you know, we really had to get creative around sides around, you know, main proteins, is it gonna be chicken or lobster or lamb or lobster was out of the question for us, my children wouldn’t appreciate it anyway.

Bruce Lesley  01:13

From First Focus on Children, this is Speaking Of Kids. I’m Bruce Lesley.

Selley Looby  01:17

And I’m Messellech Looby. Speaking of kids is a podcast that puts kids at the center of public policy. You know, Bruce, this whole conversation around holidays, and, you know, the connectivity to meals got me to really start to think about in America, we’re the richest country in the world. But we have kids today who don’t even know where their next meal is coming from.

Bruce Lesley  01:45

If I had any wish for the new year, it would be that we wouldn’t let kids go hungry. And yet we do because Congress often forgets about kids, they’re treated as an afterthought. And they’re often targeted for budget cuts, because they don’t have a lot of political power, they’re often invisible to lawmakers.

Selley Looby  02:03

Again, that’s a wild concept, I think, even for a lot of our listeners to digest, right, because at the end of the day, we’re talking about children that are feeling anxious and scared in some cases, because they don’t know where their next meal is coming from. And yet, in the halls of Congress, it’s not viewed as a real immediate life situation that so many children and families are dealing with.

Bruce Lesley  02:26

It’s unbelievable. We let kids in this nation go to bed hungry. And instead, in the halls of Congress, often the focus rather than on children and their needs, it’s often about the other interests related to nutrition, such as the sugar lobby, the dairy lobby, the cattle industry, they really do have all the power in the attention of Congress.

Selley Looby  02:48

This is a two fold conversation, right? Because yes, we’re talking about food insecurity. But then also to your point, it’s the quality of the food, and what’s being presented in schools and in grocery stores. I mean, we know ingredients that are banned. I feel like every other day on Instagram, I’m seeing a pediatrician or a physician talking about all the different ingredients that are banned in Europe, and other parts of the world that are allowed and candies and, you know, sports drinks in America. And it just seems wild. Yeah,

Bruce Lesley  03:18

once I’m done unbelievable is that we subsidize things like sugar and different industries. And consequently, food that is not nutritious, is often cheaper than things that are nutritious, such as fruits and vegetables, which we don’t subsidize in the same way. So for low income families, basically Congress’s steering them to eating less healthy food, that doesn’t make any sense. And it’s particularly harmful to kids. And,

Selley Looby  03:48

you know, I’ve shared this with you before, Bruce, my obsession with Blue Zones, the Netflix documentary, and this whole, you know, quest for longevity and just living a healthy life. And when you start to backtrack, it really does start with kids, right? It’s like these kids. Now we’re developing habits as kids healthy eating habits. I mean, even now, my five year old, I feel like because of what he’s learning in school, every time he picks something up, he’s like, oh, you know, is this healthy mommy? And you know, it’s that conversation, right? Where it’s like, yes, in moderation every once in a while. But oftentimes, kids don’t have a choice. If they’re relying on school lunch. They’re just being presented with what they get. For a lot of families. It’s difficult to even understand what’s in the ingredient list and making good healthy choices based on what you can get in the grocery store. What’s accessible for your children at school. It’s very overwhelming, and it doesn’t seem like it serves us well as a country. You know, eventually these kids are going to get older, they’re going to be more set in their ways in terms of their food preferences and what they like and it gets harder to make those transitions to make healthy food choices. Absolutely.

Bruce Lesley  04:55

We have a system set up that by which the subsidies For families are so low, that actually run out of funding in the middle of a month. And so what you see is spikes of hunger in the latter part of months. And that’s a public policy decision. And it really makes no sense. We really need to do a complete revamp of our nutrition programs and make sure that we do not leave people hungry.

Selley Looby  05:23

Yeah, I’m very excited for our guest today. Nell Menefee-Libey serves as public policy manager for the National WIC Association, the nonprofit membership and advocacy organization representing state and local WIC agency staff. In this role, she works to build support for WIC on Capitol Hill and in the Administration, as well as representing NWA in a variety of cross cutting anti poverty coalition’s now, thank you so much for being with us today. We’re excited to have you.

Bruce Lesley  05:52

Yes. Welcome to Speaking of kids.

Abbie Malloy  05:55

Thank you so much for having me.

Selley Looby  05:56

You know, you serve as Public Policy Manager at the National WIC Association. Can you share a little bit about your story and what led you to the organization and share a little bit about the mission of the association?

Abbie Malloy  06:09

Sure. So then, National WIC Association is the nonprofit member and advocacy organization representing WIC staff across the country. So everyone from the person who greets you when you come in the front door of a WIC clinic all the way up to state directors, as well as the nearly 7 million women, infants and children served by the program. I am Public Policy Manager, which is essentially the fancy way of saying our lobbyist. I do most of our our Capitol Hill and administration facing work. And I’ve been at NWA for about a year and a half. But working on WIC for close to four years now. In previous life, I was congressional staff, I have a degree in the study of women and gender. Men have always been focused really on how federal policy shapes family formation. So I’m really excited to be doing this work

Bruce Lesley  06:57

will tell us a little bit more about how does WIC operate? And how do people get access services to the program? Sure.

Abbie Malloy  07:05

So WIC is entering its 50th year. It is a public health nutrition program that provides targeted food benefits and nutrition services for specific life stages. So pregnancy postpartum, and then birth through a child’s fifth birthday. And the food package is based in nutrition science, it’s intended to provide really specific nutrients to support healthy pregnancy, healthy postpartum period, and optimal child development outcomes. And then equally important to the food package. In the broader program scope is Wickes nutrition education mission. And wick also acts as a major connector for families to other public services for which they’re eligible. We know that often for new parents, the WIC clinic will be the first stop that they make. And we are the folks who will connect them out to a pediatrician for their well child visits. Also connecting folks to things like early childhood literacy programs, making sure that they are signed up for for Medicaid or for chip. And part of what’s real strength is our on the ground footprint in communities that allows us to reach families where they are

Selley Looby  08:15

following up on that, can you share a little bit about how critical of a role WIC plays in, in the lives of these 7 million families? Yeah,

Abbie Malloy  08:25

we now have 50 years worth of evidence showing the incredible public health outcomes that WIC facilitates. Wic leads to measurable improvements in pregnancy outcomes things like longer pregnancies, lower incidences of low birth weight, so improve birth outcomes as well and healthier child development outcomes, higher cognitive development scores, lower rates of obesity, as well as improved diet quality overall, we’ve seen improved intake of fruits and vegetables among toddlers enrolled in WIC in the past couple of years, which is really exciting. I am not a mom, but all of my mom friends tell me that it’s it’s no mean feat to get toddlers to eat their vegetables. So it’s exciting to see measurable progress on that front in the program. But because we are embedded in communities also acts as a trusted resource for these families and connects them to other services for which they they may be eligible. And that is part of of the program’s real strength. We’re also the nation’s largest breastfeeding support program. So we facilitate breastfeeding support and access to breastfeeding support professionals for low income families as well.

Bruce Lesley  09:34

Well, our listeners weren’t able to see but both Sally and I were nodding enthusiastically about the difficulty of getting toddlers sea vegetables. So it is really a great thing. And one of the things for our listeners, I would say is that we really value our partnership with the National WIC Association because at first focus we think of the whole child so we think about their health, nutrition education. And I think one of the amazing things that WIC Does is the linkages it provides to those other services? I know that weight does things like refer people for immunizations and, and all those kinds of things. So WIC is not just a freestanding entity, it really does have all these amazing linkages for moms and kids throughout their communities. So tell us a little bit about how that works. Yeah,

Abbie Malloy  10:23

our state and local WIC agencies who administer the program work really, really closely with community partners with other state programs with other federal programs. So WIC clinics are often co located in federally qualified health centers. That means that kid might be able to go in for their well child visit and go directly to the WIC clinic for their regular recertification. That’s also often the place where they would see a dentist, maybe there are lots of resources in that in that one individual place so that they’re easy to access for families. My favorite part of my job is getting to work with WIC staff who are all wonderful people, they do this work, because they’re dedicated to it. And because they are dedicated to these families, and local agency staff really go above and beyond to serve the families in their programs. And they work really hard to build connections with other community programs. And so you’ll see things like partnerships with early childhood literacy programs so that families will go into the WIC clinic for their visit. And they might also get a book or a couple of books for their kid targeted to that specific age period. There are also WIC clinics that run carseat loan programs so that if families can’t afford a car seat for themselves, they can borrow one from the WIC clinic. And then when their kid gets a little bit older and age is out of that car seat, they can return it and it will go back to the next family who needs it. There are also lots of collaborations with with local diaper banks with local human milk banks. There are all kinds of resources that WIC serves as a connector for and that makes sure that these families have the best possible start for their kids.

Bruce Lesley  12:08

Right now, what are the challenges that WIC is facing with respect to funding?

Abbie Malloy  12:12

Sure, I think we have been fortunate for that the entirety of Wix history as a program we have enjoyed very strong bipartisan support, such that for almost 30 years at this point, there has been an agreement between Congress and the administration that has survived changes of of control of Congress and the White House to treat WIC like a mandatory program, even though we are discretionary funding. So while that means that Congress needs to proactively provide the funds to allow us to keep the lights on and the doors open every year, understanding the importance of wicks critical mission and the support that the program provides to low income families, there has been an agreement to provide whatever funds are necessary such that every eligible individual who seeks WIC services can receive them. And we have more than two and a half decades of precedent to that point, which we’re really proud of. And that has gone a long way in allowing the program to reach more families. Unfortunately, for the first time in this millennium, Congress is in danger of turning their back on that promise. The appropriations bills being considered in both the House and the Senate, this Congress do not adequately fund the program. And we have new research out just this week from our good friends at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Estimating that if WIC were to receive flat funding from fiscal year 2023, that would result in 2 million individuals being turned away from the program. By the end of September 2024 are talking about low income moms in the middle of a national maternal health crisis, who would lose access to healthy food. We’re talking about kids getting ready to start kindergarten, who would no longer be able to have those fresh fruits and vegetables that they rely on for their healthy development. That’s just an unacceptable outcome to our mind. And thankfully, Congress has about a month left before the next funding deadline to get themselves together and provide the resources that the program needs to ensure that we’re serving all of these families in the year to come.

Bruce Lesley  14:13

Well, just as a quick follow up on that you mentioned the fresh fruits and vegetables program and then also the shortfall in WIC. Isn’t there also something specific to them targeting cuts just to the fresh fruits and vegetables program? Yeah,

Abbie Malloy  14:27

unfortunately, House Republicans have proposed rolling back wicks, fruit and vegetable benefit. So for context, prior to 2021 wicks, fruit and vegetable benefit was only $9 a month for kids and $11 a month for adults. Obviously, that doesn’t go very far in providing fruits and vegetables that families need, which Congress recognized and proactively increase the benefit and 2021 that was in alignment with independent evidence based recommendations from the National Academies of Science and that has been extended in prior appropriate shins bills as well on a bipartisan basis. So right now the fruit and vegetable benefit is $26 a month for kids and 49 to $52 a month for pregnant and postpartum participants. It’s a little bit higher for those who are breastfeeding. And as I mentioned earlier, we have seen measurable increases in fruit and vegetable consumption among WIC enrolled toddlers as a result of that increased benefit, which is really exciting. But unfortunately, House Republicans have proposed taking an unprecedented step, which would be to cut Wickes food benefit in order to defray program costs. That has never been done before. But they are proposing up to a 70% cut in fruits and vegetable issuances. Because they do not think that that is a worthwhile use of government money, which again, would really be unacceptable to our minds. We’re grateful that the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Bill has proposed extending those higher fruits and vegetable benefit levels. And we’re hopeful that that will make it into any final spending agreement. This

Selley Looby  16:00

is coming off the heels of the recent child poverty data that came out right that shows a drastic increase in child poverty across the United States. Yeah, this seems like a double whammy oftentimes for a lot of families. Can you talk about what this means for families on the frontline like what you’re hearing from these families,

Abbie Malloy  16:19

I’m so glad that you brought that up. I think this really does fit into a broader picture. And it’s not just child poverty, we’ve seen huge increases in child poverty and child food insecurity in the past couple of years. I think it’s important to think about these proposed cuts to the WIC program, as part of a really disturbing broader trend of Congress turning their backs on families. Wic provides really vital support. And I think it’s important to keep in mind that we have a limited window of time to reach these families. We know that the health gains that WIC facilitates, are really vital in setting the building blocks for lifelong well being for these kids. And if we miss the opportunity to support them in those really crucial early years, we don’t get another shot at it, and turning them away from the program would mean failing to support them during that period.

Bruce Lesley  17:12

How do families access weight? Like if you’re a pregnant woman, then you have a baby? How do you, you know, enroll in the system?

Abbie Malloy  17:19

Yeah, that’s a good question. Rick has historically, I think, as I’ve said a couple of times had a very strong on the ground footprint in communities. And that has facilitated a lot of collaboration with other community partners, and allow the program to meet families where they are, which has been really important historically. But we have also had a huge shift in service delivery in the past couple of years. So beginning in 2020, WIC clinics had to almost overnight stand up an online service option for families, that was done, obviously to protect the health of participants as well as WIC staff. But I think the the sort of silver lining here is that it was something of a push into the 21st century for what can admittedly be kind of a 20th Century program. But what that means now is that families have the option to get certified on the program do their sort of initial intake appointments or their their annual check in appointment, by phone or by video conference. And that’s particularly important for folks who may not have access to reliable transportation, parents who can’t take time off of work or can’t pull their kiddos out of daycare, which has otherwise been a major barrier to participation for a lot of families. And we’ve seen that pay off in the raw numbers. Prior to 2020. There was about a decade long decline and with participation, we peaked at our largest numbers ever at the beginning of the Great Recession. And then there was a decade long decrease and that has turned around in recent years. We are currently serving just shy of 6.7 million individuals. Our best projections are that the program will reach 7 million individuals in fiscal year 24. And most encouraging Lee the biggest gains that we’ve seen in the past couple of years have been among children ages one to four, which is historically been the hardest participant category to retain in the program, we see really high rates of participation for infants, so kids in that first year of life, and for postpartum participants, it’s a little bit lower for pregnant participants who often don’t get connected to the program until later in pregnancy. And then we see a lot of attrition as kids age off of the program, families will decide not to recertify year after year, maybe making the calculation that for them. The juice isn’t worth the squeeze so to speak. I think the combination of those new remote service options and the higher fruit and vegetable benefits has changed that calculation for a lot of families and it’s allowing us to reach more kids, which is really exciting. Right now those remote service options are available due to a temporary waiver from USDA. We are strongly encouraging Congress to make that a permanent option in the program knowing that it’s gone a long way in helping us reach more families. But that is sort of another major priority. The National WIC Association in the medium term.

Selley Looby  20:04

Now just gave us a great overview of WIC services and the effectiveness of their programs.

Bruce Lesley  20:09

Yes, it’s important to hear that WIC participation is increasing, particularly in light of the fact that child poverty is doubled due to the expiration of the Child Tax Credit. But what I’m really curious about is how do they plan to reach low income women and children across the country? Despite the potential budget cuts, they’re looming? We’ll find out coming up after the break.

Leila Nimatallah  20:36

Making the world a better place for all children can seem like an impossibly huge task. Some of you may be thinking, I’m just one person, what could I possibly do to make a difference? I’m Leilani Matala, Vice President of advocacy and mobilization at first focus on children. And I’m inviting you to join us and become one of our volunteer advocates, whom we call our ambassadors for children. Ambassadors are our most active child advocates who raise critical issues with the US Congress, and with the administration related to child policy and funding decisions, both for kids in the US and worldwide. But don’t take my word for it. We asked one of our ambassadors to share her experience.

21:25

My name is Amy Jo Hutchison. I’m a born and raised West Virginia and who also happens to be an economic justice organizer. And I’m the founder of a grassroots movement here, rattle the windows. What drew me to the ambassador program at first focus on children was my lived experience of poverty as a mother to living in one of the poorest states in the nation, advocating for children and poverty is very personal to me. A lot of people see numbers when they look at data and reports. But when I see new findings and reports on child poverty, I see my kids and I see their friends, our neighbors, and the people who I interact with every day. And I trust first focus on children. I have personally stepped into spaces that they’ve created for parents like me to be heard. What would I tell someone thinking about becoming an ambassador with first focus on children? Well, first of all, very few with any huge shifts in the way our country addresses economic justice issues have taken place without grassroot involvement. first focus on children has created an entry point for people like me to get involved with this ambassador program. It’s an easily accessible way for us to become engaged and formed and to turn our pain in the power. I really hope you’ll join them. So

Leila Nimatallah  22:39

please join us won’t you check out campaign for children.org backslash ambassadors, on how to become a first focus on children ambassador, and to link up with our fabulous community of committed child advocates.

Selley Looby  23:00

First, focus on children is a bipartisan advocacy organization dedicated to making children and families the priority and federal policy and budget decisions. first

Bruce Lesley  23:09

focus on children moves beyond individual issues to serve a more important role. Children’s Advocacy, we educate lawmakers and the American public about the issues facing children.

Selley Looby  23:20

To learn more about our work and ways that you can become ambassadors go to first focus.org

Bruce Lesley  23:25

Coming up instead of play. We’re inviting Abby Malloy, our director of health environment and nutrition policy, to chat about the greater nutrition issues that Americans face today.

Selley Looby  23:36

Now, let’s get back to now from the WIC Association. It sounds like there’s an increase in demand right for a lot of these services. And because of technology, modifications and upgrades, this allows for more accessibility. So with the upcoming potential cuts, like what does this look like for you? I mean, are you all thinking of mainly just playing defense to maintain the existing current funding levels? Or, you know, do you think there might remotely be an opportunity for a level of increase to kind of meet this demand,

Abbie Malloy  24:13

it would be really unprecedented for Congress to fail to fund the program. And this way, we are certainly not ready to throw in the towel and are committed to getting the ball across the finish line here. What that looks like, right now, we’re the program to be flat funded, that would be providing 6 billion in funding for fiscal year 24. And we know that that’s a billion dollars short of what’s necessary to serve projected case loads. should Congress fail to fully fund the program, there are only really a couple of levers available to create cost savings in order to make up that budget shortfall for the state agencies that administer WIC on the state level. They cannot cut the food benefits, they cannot change eligibility standards. And so what that means is that they will try and make up the savings meetings either by cutting their own staff and clinic hours and outreach efforts, which would be a horrible outcome but also, unfortunately, not produce that much savings, which means that the only option that’s left available to them is turning families away from the program. And that would be a huge step backwards for the program, we have served every eligible person who walks in the door since the late 1990s. And I think even just the possibility of turning folks away has begun to undermine participant trust in the program. The most recent participation numbers that we have available to us are from September of this year, which is right before the end of the prior fiscal year. But when conversations were starting to crop up in the public eye about the possibility of failing to fully fund the program, and we have seen a modest decrease in participation from August of this year, because the word started to get out to families that they might not be able to access the program. All of this uncertainty in DC has real and tangible impacts for the families that the program serves. And my big fear is that a couple of weeks worth of political infighting will serve to undo years of good work being done by state and local WIC agency staff to get more families connected to the program.

Bruce Lesley  26:20

So I’m gonna ask you a really arcane budget question. Great. I love that. Congress is operating under a continuing resolution, which basically keeps funding at last year’s levels, but then has told WIC to go ahead and serve, you know, whoever’s eligible. So consequently, when an if a budget gets passed, and let’s say then they fund it well below the levels that is needed by WIC in mid year that even compounds the harm, right? That means that you almost have to make double the level of cuts because you were not doing it for the whole year, you’re actually doing it for only a partial part of the year.

Abbie Malloy  27:00

Right? That’s exactly right. So congressional appropriators, again, recognizing the importance of the program and not wanting to turn anyone away during the duration of these continuing resolutions have done what I’ve been calling some magic budget math. The formal name is apportionment flexibilities. So what that means is that while WIC has been flat funded, they’ve provided the same level of resources from fiscal year 23 to fiscal year 24. They are allowing the program to draw down those resources at whatever rate is necessary to ensure no one is turned away in the short term. While that does avert a crisis for now, and we’re grateful for that it’s something of a band aid on a bullet hole. Because what that means is that the later in the fiscal year a congress pushes off this final funding decision, the deeper cuts would be necessary should extra resources not be provided to the program. That’s why we saw estimates, again from from our good friends over at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Several months ago, before the beginning of the new fiscal year, projecting 600,000 individuals will be turned away from the program that is in and of itself a deeply unacceptable outcome. But because Congress has given themselves several extensions, like high schoolers doing a group project, those cuts are now much, much deeper. And if they were to only provide flat funding for fiscal year 24, again, that could result in 2 million people being turned away from the program.

Selley Looby  28:28

Wow. And, you know, no, the average WIC participant or just the average American does not understand all this, but what are you doing to elevate their voice and maybe showcasing their stories to members to let them know, you know, you outline that perfectly right? Like, this is a high school group project that no one can kind of get all their points around participation. But how do you elevate their stories in a way that really resonate? That it’s more than just a number, you know, like, these are real families and real children that are being impacted?

Abbie Malloy  29:02

Yeah, I mean, WIC is an incredibly popular program across the aisle, Democrats, Republicans, independents, all overwhelmingly support WIC. And when I speak to people who might not be familiar with the program, obviously, the idea of providing healthy foods to toddlers is an overwhelmingly popular one. But it is maybe not not the biggest or highest profile program. Certainly we serve as a smaller portion of the public than snap does, which also means that there’s a smaller dollar value attached overall. And so maybe it gets a little bit less attention from Congress. But bringing the stories of of WIC participants to the forefront, I think has gone a long way in building both public awareness of the program and public support. The National WIC Association that just the past couple of years, thanks to the efforts of a dear colleague of mine has stood up what we’re calling our participant advisory council. So that’s about doesn’t current or recent WIC participants, so mostly WIC moms or grandparents whose kids are on the program, who have been advising us on what kind of updates the program needs in order to better serve families, what WIC does in their lives, how it supports them. But they have also graciously been a wonderful spokespeople for the program. They’ve been, you know, giving interviews to newspapers and on radio and TV talking about the difference that WIC made for them and the importance of why it needs to be a reliable resource to families. And we have also been bringing our members so that’s state and local agency staff to Capitol Hill in recent weeks and months to to speak directly to their members of Congress about the work that they do every day to support families.

Bruce Lesley  30:50

I think you’re absolutely right, like the polling we’ve seen and that you all have conducted and other people have conducted of show really strong support for work. And I would also point in episode two of our podcast we talked to so Linda Lake, who did polling for us on looking at the budget implications of various issues. And for years and years, I think the number one thing people were concerned about in kid policy was things like child abuse and neglect and education. But I will point out in this most recent one, by a, let’s see, it’s a 64 to 5% margin, people felt we were spending too little rather than too much on reducing child hunger. And so that was the number one issue in light of all that when people call their member of Congress, what should they say to address this problem? The

Abbie Malloy  31:40

term of art here is full funding, the way that that WIC funding works historically, is that USDA communicates to Congress how much money is going to be necessary for the next fiscal year, in order to serve every eligible person who walks in the door. That number is called full funding. And that’s historically the amount of resources that Congress provides. So if you are so moved to call up your member of Congress and urge them to support the WIC program, you can ask them to fully fund WIC so that no one is turned away. I think it’s also important if you want to go above and beyond to get some extra credit there to underscore the importance of continuing to provide Wickes science based food benefit. What that means is not cutting wicks, fruit and vegetable benefit, which is really important in public health outcomes and incredibly popular with families. So thankfully, it’s a pretty easy ask even for for lay people who don’t spend their time swimming around in the congressional budget in the same way that you and I do. But fully funding the program is really the ask that that we are bringing to lawmakers in the next months, I think the the January 19 funding deadline when the the Agriculture Appropriations continuing resolution expires, I think is our real last date to get this done. So I keep telling folks if they have been looking for a sign about whether they should get involved in WIC advocacy, think of this as their sign, you should get involved salutely

Bruce Lesley  33:05

This episode will run just weeks before that. So we definitely would encourage our listeners to weigh in on on this very critically important issue. Now, thanks so much for being here with us today. We really appreciate it.

Abbie Malloy  33:19

Thank you so much for having me. This was a great time.

Selley Looby  33:21

Ya know, thank you so much. Before we let you go, we love to ask each of our guests what song or what album do you turn to for inspiration to offset the challenges that you face day to day?

Abbie Malloy  33:32

That’s a fun question. I believe deeply in my soul that it’s impossible to have a bad day while you’re listening to Stevie Wonder. So we play a lot of Stevie Wonder in this house at loud volume. Because nothing seems quite as bad when you’re listening to Sir Duke.

Selley Looby  33:47

I love it. It’s awesome. That’s a strong addition. Nell, thank you. Thank you.

Bruce Lesley  33:53

Do you have a particular set of songs or songs that you love of his?

Abbie Malloy  33:57

My folks have a live album on our record that whenever I go home to my parents house, well, we’ll play on their record player. It’s one of my favorite things to do when I’m when I’m home at Christmas. So looking forward to doing that. Awesome. That’s awesome.

Bruce Lesley  34:17

As promised, we’d like to introduce Abbie Malloy, director of health, environment and Nutrition Policy here at first focus on children. I Abbie.

Abbie Malloy  34:25

Hi, guys. Thanks for having me.

Bruce Lesley  34:27

We talked to our friends today at the National WIC Association. And so it talks a lot about the issues that are challenging for WIC right now. But we wanted to ask you about sort of the bigger broader questions around child nutrition. So why is it that families and kids should care about things like, you know, the Farm Bill, for example, or in our course, I mean, obviously school lunch, but how are some of those other things that affect the nutrition of kids? What’s going and on with them and what’s sort of the state of play in Congress with respect to those issues?

Abbie Malloy  35:05

I think one of the key things I think folks don’t necessarily connect the dots on is that nutrition is as much of a health issue as it is anything. And I think, in America, in particular, when we think of like a malnourished or an undernourished or a starving kid, quote, unquote, we don’t picture kids in America, we don’t really think that that’s something that we have an issue with, because especially having so many issues with obesity and cardiovascular and these kinds of what would appear to be an issue of nutritional excess is not really the case. So we’ve got something called the child and Student Nutrition alliance that brought together a lot of different health groups, children’s health groups, disease groups. And so a lot of our work just centers around making that connection that health and nutrition are one of the same. So when we have folks with a lot of resources, eating a lot of processed foods that are cheaper, they’re more accessible, they’re easy to get your hands on, those kids are overweight, and at the same time, they’re extremely nutrient deficient. So they’re not, you know, quote, unquote, starving, they’re not losing weight, but they don’t have the nutrients, they need to be healthy. So obesity is not this issue of excess and lack of exercise kids, you know, they might be coming home from school, and you know, sitting in front of the TV, but that’s not why they’re morbidly obese a lot of the times, especially for kids in poverty. That’s because they can’t access the right foods like fresh produce fresh meat, high fiber and whole carbs, a whole wheat carbs. And they’re developing these issues like non alcoholic fatty liver disease, hypertension, cardiovascular disease super early on, because they’re undernourished, and you just can’t physically see it in them. And I think that’s where a lot of the policymakers kind of have that disconnect. They’re not going oh, well, we don’t have starving kids. And we do. And WIC and snap, food stamps are especially important because they specifically let kids access these Whole Foods, these produces these whole foods that help you feel full, because you know, we’ve all eaten an entire bag of like Hot Cheetos. And then 45 minutes later, we’re starving, and we’re eating more food. And that’s what these kids go through for every single meal. And that’s a huge, huge issue. And then that also ties into the Farm Bill, which I’m super glad you brought that up. Why is

Selley Looby  37:26

it so important that American families be aware of the Farm Bill and how it affects them,

37:30

it’s authorized or reauthorized rather, through September 30 of 2024. They extended it a year from 2023. But we’re looking at a fight probably in early spring. And you know, when you think of farm bill, of course, you think of agriculture and conservation policy. And that’s all really important for kids in terms of just having environmental implications and climate implications, racial justice, and agriculture and all of that uplift kids, and especially kids of color. But really the bulk of the bill probably over, you know, 75%, is focused in this title for which has all of the nutrition policy, and most importantly, it has snap, which is what we really think of when we’re saying food stamps. And there’s 14 million kids on staff right now. And much like WIC, the funds that folks and their families get from food stamps is what allows them to purchase Whole Foods, healthier foods that keep kids full, it gives them the nutrients they need to really grow and thrive and have better health outcomes later in life. And so what we’re anticipating is that there will be a lot of attempts to limit snap eligibility. The way they do this is often through time limits, they often will refer to them as work requirements, which is pretty inaccurate, because those already exist. If you’re on SNAP with a few exceptions. If you’re not working for three months or more, you’re removed from the program for three years, which is already incredibly harsh. But any attempts to make that more strict or expand that to more groups is going to in turn, come back and hurt kids because if adults can’t get snap, kids can’t have snap. And that’s a huge, huge issue for folks in their families. A lot of these have even been centered on families with kids and parents with young kids, which a little bit ludicrous, but here we are. But importantly, the farm bill gives us an opportunity to on the other hand, not only just protect snap by getting rid of these proposed amendments and things like that, but actually strengthen snap. And I think any legislation that expands access expands access to the types of foods that you can get on SNAP is really important. So

Bruce Lesley  39:45

Abbie, tell us about the issues around hot meals and the nutrition programs. .

39:48

Sure Yeah, I’m really glad you brought that up the foods Act which is particularly helpful for families who are experiencing what’s known as time poverty, where if they’re working you No two, sometimes three jobs, they just don’t have time to give their kids anything. But packaged foods, frozen chicken nuggets, because you’re working 16 hours a day, you can’t cook for your kids, you’re just trying to make sure that they’re fed. But there’s such strict limitations on what foods you’re allowed to purchase through step that, you know, you can’t purchase any sort of hot or pre prepared food. And that includes a rotisserie chicken that includes anything from a hot bar or salad bar, which in turn, you know, you have these arguments where folks are saying, Oh, well, people are only buying potato chips, and blah, blah, blah with snap and candy, which isn’t true. But what else are they supposed to purchase, we just end up in this really funny cycle. And my partner actually works at a grocery store. And just this weekend, he was helping someone who was trying to purchase literally rotisserie chicken. And he was scanning it and the woman was like, I don’t know why I saw this balance, what what’s going on. And he discovered it was because she had a rotisserie chicken. And she was like, I just don’t have time to cook for my kids. And so now these kids now have to eat, you know, a frozen meal, highly processed chicken nuggets, highly processed, frozen prepackaged foods, that take the same amount of time to prepare as just carving up a rotisserie chicken, which will be so much more filling so much more nutrient dense for these kids. And it’s yeah, it’s really unfortunate. But the farm bill gives us an opportunity to change a lot of those things. So there’ll be lots of opportunities for advocacy, on the ground and in Washington. So we hope folks will join us for that, just pushing for these really positive bills that we can sneak in to make snap all that it can be and really just do the best that I can. Thank

Selley Looby  41:41

you so much, Abbie for that. I feel like one of the things that first focus does really well is we pull together groups from different sectors to kind of really come together. And like you outlined in the alliance that you formed the last two years, it’s been gaining momentum. And we have folks from education sector, obviously nutrition sector poverty sector, like you said, nutrition impacts, all facets of children’s lives in particular, school lunch, what’s the Alliance doing in terms of, you know, addressing some of the nutritional standards in schools,

42:18

it’s pretty contentious in schools right now. There’s a lot of this kind of post Michelle Obama pushed back, people don’t like whole wheat Pop Tarts, this sort of thing, especially hot button news, right now has been the whole milk debate. And so what we’ve been working on is commenting on some of the proposed USDA nutrition standards have come out, that have been really impactful and have the opportunity to be really impactful for the types of food that kids eat in school. Because the nutritional quality of those meals has such a long lasting impact on their education, their ability to focus. There are studies that even show that kids who have access to universal school meals are actually less likely to get suspended. You know, how are you supposed to focus and you know, sit down, behave if you you’re starving. And so that’s one of our main priorities, just making sure that it’s clear that for Yes, physical health, but emotional and mental health, these food and nutrition programs, especially in schools are just as important. If

Bruce Lesley  43:22

you’re a listener to the podcast, it sounds to me like WIC is an imminent issue in terms of the funding, you’re telling us that there’s going to be a fight over the farm bill and the SNAP or food stamp program in the spring or sometime through the summer of next year? What are things that listeners can do? How can they engage in this conversation and get their members of Congress to take action in a positive manner for kids, one of

43:51

the best things you can do is just contact them and contact them and bombard them and bombard them and let them know how important this is to your community. If you can reach out into your community find out how many folks are utilizing these programs, because there are in every single county town there’s folks who are looking snapped even if you don’t realize it, and if you can just highlight how important especially if you’ve ever been on SNAP or WIC let them know about your impact what you’ve seen how you’ve experienced health changes. And anything along those lines, just calling emailing and letting them know how important this is to you and letting them know how important this is to commit to kids health when you commit to these programs.

Selley Looby  44:37

Abbie, thank you so much for joining us today. Your insights were very helpful at you know, dissecting not only you know what’s going on within WIC, but then also giving us a bigger, broader picture of what children are facing in the nutrition space. So thank you so much for your time.

Bruce Lesley  44:53

Yeah, thanks, Abbie. Thanks for joining us.

44:55

Thank you guys so much for having me. It’s so important that we’re talking about these issues. I really appreciate it

Bruce Lesley  45:06

This is speaking of kids. Thanks for listening. I’m Bruce Lesley,

Selley Looby  45:09

and I’m Messellech Looby special thanks to our guests, Nell Menefee-Libey and Abbie Malloy.

Bruce Lesley  45:14

Speaking of Kids is a podcast by First Focus on Children.

Selley Looby  45:18

Elizabeth Windom is the supervising producer and Julia Windom is the Associate Producer.

Bruce Lesley  45:23

Leila Nimatallah is the advocacy and mobilization producer and the senior producer is J. Woodward.

Selley Looby  45:29

Our theme music is don’t look twice by Sam Barsh.

Bruce Lesley  45:33

For more information about this week’s episode go to Firstfocus.org You can find all our links in our show notes.

Selley Looby  45:39

If you have any thoughts, questions or interest in becoming a First Focus on Children Ambassador, email us at speaking of kids at first focus.org and

Bruce Lesley  45:48

please follow rate and review on Apple podcasts Spotify or YouTube. Speaking

Selley Looby  45:52

of kids is produced by Windhaven productions and blue J Atlantic