PHOENIX — Arizona women and children aren't going to lose their federally funded nutrition assistance, at least not yet.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture told states it has about $125 million in “contingency funds” in its budget to keep the Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, program going despite the federal shutdown that occurred when Congress refused to pass the necessary continuing resolution.
Laura Oxley, spokeswoman for the Arizona Department of Health Services, said she does not know exactly how much of that the state will get. But she said it should be enough to keep the program going through the end of the month.
On Monday, DHS had estimated it had enough available to keep the WIC clinics open only through Friday. That would also have been the cutoff to provide vouchers to enable eligible families to purchase needed food items.
“More than 160,000 children and women depend on the healthy foods on a monthly basis,” Oxley said. “They should continue to keep their appointments and use their WIC checks.”
Oxley said the program also provides non-financial assistance like breastfeeding support.
The program is open to pregnant, breastfeeding and postpartum women and all infants. Assistance is also available for children younger than five who are considered at “nutritional risk,” with factors ranging from prematurity to being over or under weight.
There is also a requirement that applicant families be at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level. That translates out to $2,392 a month for a family of two and $3,011 for a family of three, with higher levels for larger families.
Oxley said the average WIC voucher in Arizona is for $61 a month, although there are limits on what recipients can buy. For example, WIC checks can be used for store or house-brand milk, but for adults and children older than 2, that has to be either fat-free or reduced-fat milk. And flavored milk is out.
And the list continues to evolve.
Four years ago, state Health Director Will Humble revamped it to focus more on whole grains. Brown rice is in; white rice is not.
Bread has to be labeled 100 percent whole wheat, and veggie preparations with cheese, butter or teriyaki sauce are off limits.
Humble said the original WIC menu was a product of the 1970s, when hunger was a major public health issue. The result, he said, was a focus on foods that were “decent” but had a lot of fat and sugar.
And cheese was a big part of the diet.
With obesity now more of a problem, he had the menu revamped. Cheese remains on the list, but the purchase is limited to a single 16-ounce package each time.
The more immediate issue for Arizona now is whether the money in the USDA contingency fund will last long enough.
That remains to be seen: The last federal shutdown lasted 21 days.