The political theater in Washington, D.C., has real life consequences for tens of thousands of low-income Utah mothers suddenly faced with the scary prospect of not being able to provide for their little ones.
“How am I going to feed my baby,” said a frightened Salt Lake City woman who found out Wednesday morning that the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program had been suspended because of the congressional budget stalemate.
“I didn’t know about the shutdown,” said the woman who identified herself only by the initials U.A. “My kid is on formula and I don’t know what I am going to do. I don’t have money to buy formula.”
WIC provides vouchers that may be redeemed at supermarkets for formula and other essentials. It is federally funded but administered in Utah by counties.
The Salt Lake County Council passed emergency funding Tuesday to buy extra food and formula and keep some WIC personnel on the job during the first week of the shutdown. These workers can provide guidance for people coming to WIC clinics but not grocery vouchers. Instead, the recipients are referred to food pantries for supplies.
In other Utah counties, WIC offices are dark.
Emergency aid • U.A., who has a five-month old, found her way to the food pantry at Crossroads Urban Center, 347 S. 400 East, in Salt Lake City. Crossroads provides formula, as well as food, to those in need. It is one of the few food pantries to offer formula.
But U.A., who uses 10 12-ounce cans of formula a month, can only get one can at a time from Crossroads. She can return for more after three days.
A 12-ounce can of powdered formula is mixed with water for use. It costs about $16 per can at local grocery stores.
The 22-year-old U.A. is married to a disabled man who cannot work, she explained.
“This is ridiculous. People live off WIC,” she said. “Are they going to leave my kid starving?”
Midvale resident Alejandra Castro, 34, also was in a panic Wednesday when she learned WIC was shut down. The WIC office in Midvale referred her to the Copperview Food Bank, she said. But that pantry doesn’t carry formula and it sent her to Crossroads Urban Center.
“I came here as fast as I could,” she said with a sigh of relief.
Castro, who is a mother of a six-week-old and typically uses nine of the 12-ounce cans of formula a month, said the WIC closure took her by surprise. “For a lot of people, it’s not good,” she said. “WIC is all for the babies.”
Although thankful for one can of formula, she was dismayed that she would have to drive downtown from Midvale every three days for another can of formula until the government shutdown ends.
“It’s not close for me,” she said. “But I need to come here.”
Rising demand • Since Monday morning, the food pantry at Crossroads has experienced an increase in women looking for formula, said Rachel Fischbein, the center’s emergency services director.
“I will need more formula, no doubt about that,” she said. “It’s nice [for Congress] to say, ‘Oh, we won’t see a services impact for a week or so.’ But on the bottom [income group], it’s immediate.”
Crossroads Urban Center is accepting donations of formula, which can be dropped off at the center, she said.
Outside of Salt Lake County, the dozen county and regional health departments that handle WIC were “completely closed down,” said Tom Hudachko, state Health Department spokesman.
“They were not even able to staff their offices like they can in Salt Lake County, where they can provide counseling. They can’t accept new clients and are not able to issue new vouchers for existing clients,” he added, noting that there are 66,000 recipients of WIC aid statewide.
Some 25,000 of those who reside in Salt Lake County can expect limited relief because of the emergency county appropriation.
The shutdown also has impacted 270 workers in local health departments along with 20 at the state level. Most have been furloughed, Hudachko said, although it is difficult to say specifically how many because in some local agencies, the employees perform multiple tasks, not all of which are federally funded.
At the state Health Department, he said, three WIC-related people are still working — the program manager and a financial officer who are keeping track of existing vouchers as they’re redeemed and a nutritionist who is answering calls on a department hotline.
Shutdown ‘poster child’ • “This program really is the poster child for the government shutdown,” Hudachko observed. “We have tens of thousands of people who can’t get formula for their children. It’s certainly pretty real to them.”
The federal government’s breakdown triggered a grassroots response through social media. A Facebook site called “The People’s WIC — Utah” was set up to help. By Wednesday afternoon, there were multiple entries from WIC recipients describing their needs as well as offers from people in several communities who offered to donate or collect foodstuffs for those in need.
Jen Gallegos in Tooele said she had coupons for $5 off a couple of brands of infant formula. Amanda Chappell in Smithfield posted that she had “lots of jars of baby food.” Heather Pimley Palmer of Saratoga Springs volunteered her home as a drop-off point for donations to help people in northern Utah County.
“Any families that are in need of anything, please contact me and we will do all we can to get you what you need,” she wrote, adding a smiley face to her post.
In Price, local La Leche League group founder Chapel Taylor-Olsen offered breast feeding counseling, knowing there were plenty of people having difficulty finding formula.
“It’s a huge problem for everyone involved,” she said in a telephone interview, adding that the government shutdown “feels a little unnecessary.” Still, she vowed, “I can only go so far physically, but I can try to do as much as I can over the phone or by email.”