The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) ensures that millions of children receive the food and nutrition education they need to grow and thrive in their earliest years. Despite its importance, Congress has repeatedly targeted the program for cuts during the appropriations process. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released new data showing that WIC currently only reaches about half of all eligible moms and children. More funding is needed to expand the reach of the program and support children’s health.

Nutritional Benefits of WIC

WIC specifically provides nutrition assistance for children and infants ages zero to five. These years are some of the most significant in a child’s life. Young children who experience food insecurity are more prone to frequent illness, asthma, tooth decay, increased hospitalizations, and obesity. They are also more likely to develop behavioral, mental health, and social-emotional problems. In 2022, WIC lifted nearly 100,000 children out of poverty, with major implications for their overall health and well-being. 

WIC also specifically offers a fruit and vegetable cash-value benefit (CVB), providing up to $35 per month per child. Research shows that the CVB increases participating toddlers’ fruit and vegetable consumption by up to ¼ cup per day. Increased produce intake is linked to improved mental health outcomes, healthy growth, and brain development

New Data Shows Declining Participation

A new report from USDA shows that WIC coverage rates decreased in 2021. Coverage rates refer to the percentage of eligible women, infants, and children who participated in the WIC program. The overall coverage rate was 51.2%, with 78% of eligible infants and 43% of children covered. Overall, the WIC coverage decreased by 1% between 2020 and 2021. This is consistent with a decline in coverage seen since 2016. 

Children and infants of color saw notable decreases in WIC coverage. Coverage rates among Hispanic infants decreased by more than 10% and overall WIC coverage for Black Americans decreased by more than 5%. Notably, coverage for infants and children of color is greater than white infants and children. This is particularly true for infants — 84% of eligible Hispanic infants and 77% of eligible Black infants participated in WIC, underscoring its importance as a valuable nutrition program for these historically excluded communities. 

Proposed Cuts

The original agriculture appropriations bill proposed by the Congress makes deep cuts to WIC that will be detrimental to children’s health. The Senate’s proposed bill provides $6.3 billion in funding for FY 2024, but early data in 2023 shows an increase in participation and WIC will require an additional $1.4 billion, requested by President Biden in a supplemental funding request, to provide benefits for all participants. Without this increase, 600,000 participants could be placed on waitlists, with toddlers and preschoolers bearing much of this loss. The House Majority’s bill underfunds the program even further, and slashes the fruit and vegetable CVB by 56% for children, down to just $11 per month. 

Next Steps

Congress must fully fund WIC in the FY 2024 appropriations process. As the data shows, WIC is a crucial support for children and infants of color. Additionally, further funding is needed to address the trend of declining coverage to ensure that children, infants, and mothers who are eligible have access to the nutrition they need to grow and thrive. 

Congress must fund WIC at the necessary $7.7 billion level to ensure that each and every eligible child is able to participate in this program. Should Congress pass a continuing resolution (CR), it must cleanly fund WIC without creating shortfalls for future participants.