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Child nutrition program faces cuts

WIC benefit key for poor families

By David Abel
Globe Staff / April 16, 2011

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Governor Deval Patrick and state lawmakers are proposing to slash more than 20 percent of state money from a decades-old program that helps thousands of low-income mothers afford formula and other basic foods for their children.

The Women, Infants, and Children program, widely known as WIC, is regarded as a pillar of the social safety net, providing 130,000 low-income women in Massachusetts who are pregnant, breast-feeding, or raising young children with supplemental food, health care referrals, and nutrition education.

Despite concerns raised by advocates for the poor, state officials said they have no choice but to make the cuts because of the state’s budget crunch.

“Massachusetts, like all states, continues to feel the impact of the global economic crisis,’’ said Julia Hurley, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Health. “No agency wants to have to make these decisions, but sound fiscal management has required tough choices.’’

Hurley said the effects of the proposed cut in state funding for WIC, such as how many families might lose support, remain unclear. State spending would fall from $12.4 million this fiscal year to $9.8 million.

The state also receives federal aid for WIC, which is likely to decline next fiscal year, advocates said. State officials could not say how much the state receives from the federal government for WIC, which provides aid to children until age 5.

Advocates for low-income women, however, said they fear that the consequences of cutting WIC again — it sustained a 9 percent cut in the past three years — will prove devastating.

“This would just make it much harder for poor families,’’ said Valerie Bassett, executive director of the Massachusetts Public Health Association. “It would undermine our effort to make sure that low-income families have access to healthy food.’’

The monthly WIC benefits package can provide a child between the ages of 1 and 4 with a dozen eggs, 16 quarts of milk, and $6 in vouchers for fruits and vegetables, among other foods, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

Administration officials said they need to make such undesirable cuts as they try to close a projected $1.2 billion budget gap. The governor’s proposed $30.5 billion budget for fiscal 2012 called for cutting $570 million, the largest year-to-year cuts in 20 years.

Representative Brian Dempsey, a Haverhill Democrat who serves as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said the WIC cuts represented one of many difficult choices his committee had to make in drafting its budget.

“There are a lot of very important and essential programs that we weren’t able to fund at the appropriate level, and this is one of them,’’ he said.

But Dempsey said he expects an effort to mitigate the WIC reduction. “This is a very difficult cut, and we would like to avoid making it, if we could,’’ he said.

Officials in Senate President Therese Murray’s office said the Senate has yet to decide whether to include the WIC program cuts in its budget, which will not be released until next month.

“We’re still working on our budget recommendations,’’ said David Falcone, a spokesman for Murray.

Organizations such as Horizons for Homeless Children in Boston said nearly all the families they provide services to rely on WIC.

Stacy Dimino, a spokeswoman for Horizons, said some of the children in her program already hoard the food they serve by putting it in their pockets. She said some of the children do not know when their next meal will be.

“If they have to go without WIC, it’s going to be much harder for these families,’’ she said. “These families are already struggling to pay rent, utility payments, and food, and without WIC, I worry they will not make the best nutritional choices. This program is critical.’’

Dr. Sean Palfrey, a professor of pediatrics and public health at Boston University School of Medicine, said about 90 percent of his patients are either eligible for WIC or enrolled in the program, which also provides counseling from nutritionists and referrals for services as diverse as dental care and fuel assistance.

“Without WIC, I wouldn’t know how to help them,’’ he said.

He predicted that many families will turn to food pantries. But he said pantries rarely have the formula and other food needed for pregnant women and newborns.

“WIC ensures that they get quality foods,’’ Palfrey said. “Food pantries aren’t focused on mothers and babies. A baby’s brain development depends on their nutrition. If families are being stretched because they don’t get this, it’s going to hurt.’’

One of his former patients, Sheryl Debarros-Carter, said she relied on WIC to raise her two children when she lived in Roxbury two decades ago. It allowed her to buy milk, juice, cereals, eggs, and other necessities.

“It was a blessing to me,’’ said Debarros-Carter, now 49 and living in Malden. “The foods they supplied I would have probably bypassed. I just couldn’t have afforded it all.’’

She said too many poor families rely on fast foods like pizza as a substitute for the fruits, vegetables, and other vitamin-rich nutrients their children need.

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.

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