Note: The below op-ed by PHS President and CEO, Lisa David, appeared in The Hill on September 8, 2020.

Free and reduced-priced school meals are critical for students’ health, especially low-income students, and that consideration has influenced the debate over reopening schools during the pandemic. But what about babies, toddlers, and children too young for school? Where do they get food if they face food insecurity at home?

As the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic continues to take its toll, underserved families face even worse financial hardship, and now many families with young children that were financially stable before are struggling to put food on the table. If the thought of hungry babies isn’t enough to move policymakers to action, they should at least be concerned about the decades-long consequences of food insecurity in early childhood. Investing in food access through the WIC (Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women Infant and Children) program for expecting mothers and young children will pay dividends in American health for a long time.

Poor nutrition among kids, especially in young children, can have consequences that last a lifetime. Food insecurity is associated with delayed development in young children, behavioral problems, risk of certain chronic illnesses, and lower academic achievement. On the other hand, good nutrition in pregnant moms supports fetal development and can help prevent mothers’ gestational diabetes, excessive weight gain, hypertension, and anemia. Early childhood is also a critical time for kids to form healthy habits.

Unfortunately, not having enough money and resources for food is painfully common under normal circumstances — affecting one in nine Americans in 2018 — and has become even more prevalent during the pandemic. One in four children are likely to face food insecurity this year, and as a result, our entire society will feel the repercussions.

Data shows that new moms and young children are struggling right now. As the nonprofit organization running the largest community WIC program in New York state, we conducted a survey among clients that found the already vulnerable women and young children using WIC are facing significant barriers to accessing employment, health care, and food as a result of the pandemic — even as New York City reopens.

While most WIC families were working prior to the onset of the pandemic, nearly 80 percent of our survey respondents had a change in employment status as a result of COVID-19; of those, 71 percent lost their job, 17 percent experienced reduced hours, and 10 percent experienced a reduced salary. Many women have been laid off or furloughed and the resulting financial hardship is making it difficult for them to afford basic necessities like food and housing. Despite the Agriculture Department granting waivers to allow for more food substitutions for WIC-prescribed foods, finding WIC products like formula and nutrient-rich cereal is proving difficult: approximately half the respondents (51 percent) reported that the pandemic has made it more difficult to get WIC-covered products at the grocery store.

As a result, these parents are worried. Respondents were most concerned about their health or their family’s health (71.9 percent), rent or housing (62.2 percent), employment (52.9 percent), having enough food (43.3 percent), their WIC benefits (32.2 percent), and access to health care (26.8 percent). Pregnancy and new motherhood can already be a stressful time for many women, and the impact of the pandemic has made it even more challenging.

Many of these issues and concerns aren’t unique to mothers who use WIC, and extend far beyond New York City to the entire country. Nationally, only half of WIC-eligible mothers and children receive WIC benefits, meaning that millions of new moms and young kids who could benefit from nutritional support aren’t getting it — and that’s under normal circumstances. With an unemployment rate above 10 percent that has disproportionately affected women, many pregnant women and new moms who weren’t low-income or at nutritional risk before the pandemic may be newly vulnerable.

There is little federal support beyond WIC for low-income women and young children; pandemic-related government aid has essentially evaporated. Trump’s new executive order restores only $300 of the $600 unemployment bonus and is wrought with issues beyond the insufficient aid. Meanwhile, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin is reportedly completely unfamiliar with WIC, which speaks volumes to how much the Trump administration cares about low-income women. Trump and his Cabinet offer no hope, meaning Congress needs to step up to provide support — and soon.

The next federal stimulus package will be incomplete if it doesn’t include specific protections for the health and economic wellbeing of the most vulnerable. Congress must maintain financial support for WIC recipients, invest in expanding awareness of and eligibility for WIC, and enroll more eligible people in the program — especially undocumented women and their families. These provisions could look like a bipartisan bill from early May that allowed and encouraged states to increase the value of WIC cash vouchers for fresh produce.

Congress must also extend the waiver authority allowing states and local WIC agencies to adapt services during the pandemic. Many states are now providing services virtually, and others are offering curbside service to reduce in-person contact. If the waiver authority expires at the end of September as it’s scheduled to, WIC clinics will have to return to in-person service and put pregnant women, new moms, and their kids at greater COVID-19 risk.

Beyond WIC, low-income and unemployed new and expecting moms should receive additional financial benefits to keep them afloat and healthy. Every moment counts for infants, toddlers, and young children — Congress must move quickly to pass the new relief package. The healthy development of our youngest generation depends on it.

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