Out of the Mouths of Babes

Thursday, March 3, 2011

To judge by the results of their budget-slashing, all-night tea party a few weeks back, Republicans must have swarmed out of their caucus and onto the floor of the House of Representatives with a single rallying cry on their lips.

Women and children first!

No, that’s not whom Republicans vowed to rescue in their maiden legislative voyage. That’s whom they targeted for harsh, family- and health-destructive spending cuts.

They threw in infants, too.

And whom did the new Republican majority spare altogether from the budget ax??

Read on. Especially if you think our food system needs an overhaul. And especially if you’re a parent working hard to make sure your kids eat right.

This is not about reining in Washington’s spendthrift ways. We’re certainly open to smart ways of doing that here at EWG. Rather, this is a wake-up call for effective food populism as it reaches beyond the farmers’ market and into the hard bottom line of food policy and politics.

The legislation passed by House Republicans in the wee hours of February 19 (no Democrats voted for it) slashed $747 million – about 10 percent – from the 2011 budget for the Special Supplemental Feeding Program for Women, Infants and Children. It’s commonly known as “WIC.”

A Brief History of WIC

WIC was created in 1974 to provide a very modest but crucial measure of food assistance to low-income moms and little kids who are at “nutrition risk.” The risk can be a medical condition – anemia, underweight, overweight or a history of pregnancy complications or poor pregnancy outcomes. Or the risk can be nutritional – failure to eat an adequate diet or poor nutrition habits. The risks are assessed by a health professional when applicants are screened.

To qualify for this modest assistance, recipients must be poor – very poor. WIC rules require that applicants’ income be at or below 185 percent of the poverty line. In practice, WIC participants are much, much poorer – 68 percent are at or below the poverty line, which for a family of four this year is $22,350. Fewer than 14 percent of Americans are that poor today, even as we struggle out of the Great Recession.

WIC gives pregnant women and recent moms information about good nutrition, and it has had impressive success encouraging women to breast-feed. They also get checks or vouchers to purchase specific foods designed to supplement and improve their diets: infant cereal, iron-fortified adult cereal, vegetables, milk and cheese, peanut butter, whole wheat bread and so on. By most measures, WIC has been spectacularly successful in improving the health and well-being of the children it serves: studies have shown that birth weights increase, dental costs drop and cognitive abilities improve. WIC children are also less likely to be underweight but are not at increased risk of being overweight.

For the moment, let’s leave aside important debates about the nutritional benefits of some of the foods that get purchased with a fraction of WIC money. The bigger point seems clear: A program to get better, healthier food to low-income expectant moms, their infants and their toddlers should be a no-brainer cornerstone of good food policy. All the more so since in recent years, more than 2.2 million WIC participants have redeemed at least some of their benefits at farmers’ markets each year.

WIC Payments Average $41 Per Month

Considering the good they do, WIC benefits nonetheless are minimal – about $41 per month per recipient, on average – and they are temporary. Just ask yourself how you’d give a nutritional boost to an expectant mom or a two-year-old for about a dollar and thirty-six cents a day.

The program has enjoyed strong bi-partisan support throughout its history. Today WIC serves more than 9 million people. Sixty percent are kids between the ages of one and  four years. Another 18 percent are newborns and infants not yet a year old. The remaining 20 percent of WIC beneficiaries are pregnant and postpartum women.

If you’re wondering why an “environmental” group would concern itself with WIC, it’s because food is the central environmental factor in public health.

If science has established anything about child development, it is that sufficient food – good, nutritious food – is perhaps the single most important determinant of the future health and well-being of these little people. Everything from their stature to their emotional development to their very ability to think is shaped by the adequacy of the nutrition they receive in those early months and years, and during their explosive growth in the womb.

So what would a 10 percent cut in WIC spending mean? One option would be to lop roughly a million people off the program’s rolls – 78 percent of whom would be infants and toddlers under five. Alternatively, the meager benefits could be made even more so, by cutting them to, say, $1.22 a day.

No Cuts to Subsidies for Agribusiness

But here’s the real rub when it comes to food policy.

While the House Republican budget contemplates damage on that scale to a food program for poor kids during the worst economy in 80 years, it cut not one penny from the country’s farm subsidy programs – at a time when  the farmers who receive the subsidies are enjoying record-high crop prices and incomes..

Just one category of that spending, the automatic “direct payments,” totals more than $5 billion every year. Even top farm policy leaders in Congress have said the direct payments are hard to defend because taxpayers provide them even when farm prices and incomes are sky high, as they are today and have routinely been for the past five years. You don’t even have to be a farmer to collect.

By cutting just a fraction of what we spend on direct payments, crop insurance and other farm subsidies, we could have held WIC harmless and continued to give a little help to deserving poor little kids at serious “nutrition risk.” And farmers would still have an exceptionally strong safety net in place.

The subsidy lobby prevailed over supplemental food for low-income women, infants and children by arguing that the subsidy stream is part of an inviolable “contract” between subsidized farmers and the taxpayers they soak. That contract is the “farm bill” Congress passes every four or five years; the next round is in 2012.

Of course, the subsidy lobby never hesitates to shred that sacred contract when it is a matter of getting billions of dollars more money than a farm bill authorized, whether for “disaster aid” (an annual pleading) or “economic emergency” (the rationale for doubling subsides in the late 1990s and early 2000s).

Washington insiders all know that with the Senate and White House opposed and in Democratic hands, many of the cuts House Republicans so gleefully approved last month will never become law. Let us hope that’s the case for the draconian cuts to WIC—and to other programs the good food movement should stand behind, including support for organic agriculture and farm conservation.

Even if the House budget is pure symbolism, what’s the message? For those of us who want a fair, equitable food system that begins to help the country heal its dietary and environmental woes, the House Budget resolution symbolizes an unacceptably lopsided and wrong-headed approach to food and agriculture policy.

If you agree, there’s no time like the present to say so to the people who represent you in Washington.


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