Confusion and worry over aid for women and children

October 10, 2013: 3:53 AM ET
wic vouchers
WIC programs nationwide may be forced to stop issuing vouchers like these if the government shutdown stretches into November.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney)

There's a lot of anxiety in homes where mothers and young children count on government vouchers to put food on the table, as the federal shutdown reaches day 10.

Officials with Women, Infant and Children nutrition programs around the country said they have enough funding to keep the food program open through this month, though many are paring back their already slim administrative budgets to save money.

However, officials are concerned the 9 million participants would go without if the shutdown stretches into November or beyond.

The only state that says it doesn't have enough money for the program now is North Carolina. The state health department announced late Tuesday that 80% of the 264,000 participants had been issued vouchers. But more than 50,000 participants who have yet to receive vouchers this month won't get them due to insufficient funding.

The federally-funded, state-administered program includes grocery vouchers for infant formula, baby food and nutritious foods for mothers. It also provides medical check-ups at non-profit and state-run clinics.

Shana Hanson Lovejoy is a mother of two who cleans rooms at a motel near her Nebraska home, and is also studying to be a counselor specializing in child psychology. The WIC benefits make a difference in her ability to buy formula for her 6-month-old son, Myles.

"We scrounge every day to make sure our kids are taken care of," said 24-year-old Hanson Lovejoy .

Hanson Lovejoy has vouchers covering her through later this month, but she's not sure whether she'll get her next set of vouchers. If she doesn't, "That's $250 [per month] in formula that I will no longer get until the shutdown is over," she said.

She directed her frustration at Congress: "A lot of people are suffering right now and I wish they would figure it out."

Related: Shutdown means tough choices for mothers and kids

State officials say closing the WIC program would be painful.

"The impact on people's lives is pretty significant, so we're hopeful that it will be resolved so we don't have a break in service," said Janet Charles, director of the WIC program in Washington State.

Meanwhile in Washington, D.C., federal staff responsible for the program were furloughed after arranging October's funding, according to state officials and the agency's plans.

Related: Shutdown hits preschoolers, parents

The challenge for the WIC programs has been to let clients know that their services are open for now, even while the federal government is shuttered.

For instance, Iowa's 66,000 participants were originally told new vouchers would not be printed this month.

"Then the USDA found funding and sent it to states in need," said Jill Lange with the Iowa WIC program. Her clients redeem just under $1 million in vouchers on an average week.

"We definitely have families who may have a lot of problems" if the service were suspended, she said.

Lange added that the Iowa WIC office "will only be able to stay open through this month." After that, "there will not be any [affiliated] agencies open to provide services," she said.

Related: More on the government shutdown

As the shutdown drags on, state officials are crunching the numbers to see how long they can make their funds last. If all clients can't be accommodated, the Agriculture Department will have to prioritize benefits, placing pregnant and breastfeeding women ahead of children with dietary problems -- choices those officials don't want to make.

"There's a lot of chaos and worry," said Charles, the Washington WIC director. "We're doing some calculations to see how far we can get into November."

But she and others are also taking calls from concerned community members who want to help. They're pointing those good Samaritans to local food banks and other groups, where, as always, there is a need.

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