According to the USDA, almost 18 million American households are food insecure, meaning that they don’t have the food they need to live a healthy life. As part of an ongoing research project, we’ve had the opportunity to talk with lots of families with young children in North Carolina and have witnessed just how hard it can be to put food on the table, day in and day out. The mothers and grandmothers in our study tell us that food stamps, WIC, and other forms of federal food assistance help them do what many feel is their most important job: to make sure their children have enough to eat during these hard times.
And times have been hard. Low-paying jobs, unstable employment, persistent health problems, and other life challenges have led most of the families in our study to seek food assistance. They are not alone; more than 15% of the US population receives food stamps, and over half of all infants benefit from WIC. The mothers we interview tell us that programs like these help them give their children the best lives they can give them, supplying formula for babies and giving them the opportunity to provide healthier meals for their families and make sure that their children are not hungry.
Two weeks ago, we happened to be with one of the moms in our study during her scheduled WIC appointment. Her WIC counselor told her that she would be put on a waiting list, but that because of insufficient funds due to the federal government shutdown, they were no longer able to print vouchers for anyone. The mom wondered how she would get the special milk her son needs without WIC vouchers, but worried even more about the families that were worse off than she was. Fortunately for this family and thousands of others in North Carolina, two days later, the DHHS announced that they had secured funding to continue the WIC program in North Carolina.
So WIC vouchers were reinstated, and the shutdown ended. All of this is good news for North Carolina families. However, it also reveals how tenuous the food assistance programs that so many people rely on can be. Food banks and food pantries are a critical resource, but they cannot replace federal food assistance. Our food banks are stretched thin already, and problems with federal programs only increase demand.
Next week, lawmakers from the House and Senate will meet to debate the Farm Bill, which provides support for agriculture in the United States as well as help for hungry families (such as food stamps). Some groups have proposed significant cuts to food stamps. This would have detrimental effects on families that are already struggling. As a country, and as a state, we must put feeding children at the top of our list. Given cuts to unemployment benefits and other forms of social support, food assistance has become a mainstay for families going through hard times. At all levels, it’s time to come to the table so that families can keep putting food on the table.