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Nathan G. Burns: WIC funding is on the chopping block, and thousands of Utah moms-to-be are at risk

In a speech to business leaders last year, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox commented on a recent report naming Utah as the best state in the country. He said, “We have something very special here … we care about our families, and we care about our neighbors.”

Here in Utah, we do care. We watch out for each other, cook for each other in times of hardship, take turns carpooling, the list goes on. While we do a great job of caring for each other, there is a group of people in our community that needs more of our help: mothers-to-be in low-income households.

We know that a healthy and nutritious diet is essential to deliver healthy babies. It can help prevent complications such as gestational diabetes, preeclampsia and gestational hypertension. It also helps the baby by preventing premature birth and various birth defects.

But a recent study found that 15% of all pregnant women in the U.S. are malnourished, with those from low-income backgrounds disproportionately affected.

Many women in low-income households cannot afford enough of the nutrient-rich food recommended for a healthy pregnancy without the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, commonly known as WIC.

WIC is a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) program that allocates money to each state to be distributed to low-income pregnant or postpartum women, infants and children under 5 years old to help purchase fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, whole grains, eggs and infant formula.

The WIC program started in the 1970s, receiving federal funding each year when Congress passes its budget. Historically, WIC has received strong bipartisan support to be fully funded — until now.

The current appropriations bill in the House underfunds the requested WIC budget by over $900 million, inevitably leading to decreased WIC budgets for every state in the country.

In Utah, WIC funding has decreased over the past decade. In 2013, we received just under $41 million (inflation adjusted), and the most recent information from 2023 shows that we are receiving just under $30 million.

Between 2018 and 2023, Utah has averaged over 41,000 WIC recipients each year. Recipients of federal nutrition assistance live all over the state, with the majority living in southern and eastern Utah, as well as western and north western Salt Lake City. More than 21% of Utah households are WIC-eligible under the current guidelines.

There are correlations between regions within the state that receive higher amounts of federal food assistance and higher incidences of preterm birth throughout Utah, and these rates may come down in part by assisting these women.

Current estimates suggest that the lower budget proposed by the House will deny 4,200 Utahns WIC benefits altogether that would have been eligible in previous years. As bad as that sounds, it doesn’t end there. The same study estimates an additional 27,500 WIC recipients in Utah will be harmed by the proposed budget proposal as it decreases funding recipients receive to buy fruits and vegetables. That is a total of 31,700 Utahns that rely on WIC who will be negatively impacted by the proposed House budget.

WIC funding is on the chopping block and thousands of moms to-be around the state are at risk of losing this essential help. If we really care about our families and neighbors the way Gov. Cox believes, we need to step up to help save WIC. We must urge our Congressional representatives to vote “no” on the budget proposal until funding to WIC has been restored.

Our representatives have town halls throughout their districts every month, and their calendars are available on their websites. These are fantastic opportunities to ensure your voice is heard. In addition to town halls, we can contact them both with email and on the phone, their contact information is available on their websites.

Let’s all be good family members and neighbors and come together to support these women and babies.

Nathan G. Burns

Nathan G. Burns is a fifth-year doctoral candidate at the University of Utah Department of Human Genetics. His thesis research focuses on how vitamin A is important for embryonic muscle development with a focus on diaphragm development and congenital diaphragmatic hernias.