During St. Paul visit, U.S. ag secretary calls for WIC funding boost

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U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, during a Thursday visit to Minnesota, called on Congress to act on funding for the federal food program for mothers and young children before increasing demand means eligible families might have to be turned away.

Funding for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC, has generally enjoyed bipartisan backing for its half-century existence.

But an impasse in Congress amid ongoing budget and debt ceiling debates mean the program may not get as much money as the Agriculture Department requests for the first time in nearly 25 years, said Vilsack, an appointee of Democratic President Joe Biden.

Vilsack, a former Iowa governor who also served as agriculture secretary for eight years under President Barack Obama, said the current appropriation for WIC is about a billion dollars short of projected need.

“You’re going to have to make some tough choices, and the first thing that is probably going to suffer is access,” Vilsack said during a visit to the Rice Street WIC Clinic in St. Paul. It was his first stop before meeting with Gov. Tim Walz in St. Charles in the afternoon.

Funding deal

A deal to fund the government reached last fall provided about $6 billion in funding for WIC this year. But estimates say the program will need more money, or it will have to start turning away participants later this year.

Nationally, about 2 million parents and kids could be turned away by September unless funding is increased, according to one analysis from the left-leaning Center on Budget and Priority Policies. In Minnesota, it could mean 32,000 could be turned down for benefits, said Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Brooke Cunningham.

Shortfalls might not just mean waiting lists for food aid, officials said during Vilsack’s visit. Local governments administering WIC programs — such as Ramsey County — will have to dial back services, which go beyond assistance with paying for food. Programs like support for breastfeeding mothers also may be cut.

Bao Yang, who has five children and has been a local WIC participant for eight years, said she has found lactation consulting from WIC indispensable.

“Breastfeeding is a challenge every time I have a new baby because every baby is different,” said Yang, who explained that her insurance provided minimal support. “I was able to successfully breastfeed my baby because of the dedication and help from the WIC staff.”

Ramsey County sees growth in WIC participation

Demand for food aid has increased in recent years as the cost of food continues to climb. Ramsey County saw a 7% growth in WIC participation since May 2023, according to county officials.

About 54% of all infants born in Ramsey County are served by the WIC program, and overall participation continues to grow, said Ramsey County Board Chair Trista Martinson. Since May 2023, participation has increased by 7%.

Ramsey County served about 17,000 WIC participants through its six offices in December, and typically served about 16,000 a month last year, officials said.

Minnesota has more than 100,000 WIC participants, and about 187,000 eligible — a higher participation rate than the national average of just over 51%, according to the state health department.