Food for Poor Moms and Kids

IN the war on poverty in the United States, few federal programs have been such a hands-down success as WIC - the Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants, and Children. Under this program, which is administered by the states, food staples - principally milk, cheese, cereal, eggs, orange juice, and infant formula - are provided to expecting or new mothers, babies, and young children who are deemed by nutritionists to be at high risk of malnutrition. WIC participants receive vouchers to purchase designated food ``packages'' at grocery stores. Numerous studies have shown that the program improves the health of poor mothers and children, reduces infant mortality, and raises the birth weight of babies.

Notwithstanding its record, however, WIC itself is fiscally undernourished. The $2.1 billion currently provided by Congress serves just half of the roughly 9 million eligible women and children. What's more, unexpectedly high rates of inflation in food prices are further crimping the program. As prices of grain and dairy products have climbed in recent months - due to droughts and other factors, including government agricultural policies - many state WIC administrators have had to cut costs.

They've done this both by eliminating categories of recipients - new mothers who aren't breast-feeding, for instance - and by shrinking the food package. Texas has reduced the cereal allowance for young children. California plans to cut its juice allowance in half and eliminate cheese. Here in Massachusetts, WIC participants are required to buy cut-rate brands of milk and cheese; further adjustments may come unless inflation abates.

WIC supporters in Congress had proposed increasing funding by $150 million a year for five years, thinking to expand the program. That was before the inflation effects became known. Now, the added money would just keep the program level.

At the least, congressional and White House budget negotiators should shelter WIC from further shrinkage. Far better, they should give it the funds to serve more mothers and children. It would even pay off: Each WIC dollar spent today saves $3 in future federal health-care outlays.

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