MN health official: Federal family nutrition aid won't end on Oct. 1

Cans of donated infant formula on shelves.
Minnesota’s food shelves are bracing for increased business — and many are worried a shutdown could impact Minnesota’s supplemental nutrition program, also known as WIC.
Hannah Yang | MPR News 2022

Minnesota’s supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children — WIC — will continue to run even if the federal government shuts down on Sunday, the state director of that vital program told MPR News.

“Participants should continue to use their benefits, and keep their appointments with WIC clinics,” Kate Franken told MPR News host Cathy Wurzer. “We plan to continue business as usual for as long as we can with the program.”

Franken said the federally funded family nutrition program will be able to operate weeks into a shutdown. On Thursday, Gov. Tim Walz said his administration is exploring “creative solutions” to ease the effects of a shutdown but did not say if the state would step in to fund WIC.

Minnesota food shelves are bracing already for increased business should the government shut down. Were WIC funding to run out, the Minnesota Department of Health, which oversees the program, would temporarily end food benefits to families. It’s a situation Franken hopes not to see.

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“For decades, WIC has received bipartisan support, and so we're counting on that to continue,” Franken said. “If that support disappears, and we don't have adequate funds, it's the families that we serve in our communities that will be hit the hardest.”

The most recent federal government shutdown began in Dec. 2018 and lasted 35 days, making it the longest in history.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: We are just days away from a possible federal government shutdown. While so-called essential government services like airport security will still be running in the case of a shutdown, some federal programs could be affected. Minnesota's food shelves are bracing for increased business, worried that a shutdown could impact Minnesota's Supplemental Nutrition program also known as WIC.

More than 100,000 Minnesotans rely on the WIC nutrition program for women, infants, and children. For more on possible impacts to WIC, Kate Franken is on the line. She is the WIC Director with the Minnesota Department of Health. Kate, thanks for your time.

KATE FRANKEN: Good morning, Cathy.

CATHY WURZER: I know you probably have plans B, C, and D, maybe, ready to go. I don't know. What do WIC participants need to know if there is a shutdown?

KATE FRANKEN: Yeah. So if there is a federal government shutdown, in Minnesota, we know that we can continue operating the WIC program for a matter of weeks, at least, into October, and so participants should continue to use their benefits, should continue and keep their appointments. Make appointments with WIC clinics. We plan to continue business as usual for as long as we can with the program.

CATHY WURZER: Where does the state funding come from? What kind of pot of money do you need to dip into?

KATE FRANKEN: So actually, it's federal funding that we've received for operating the WIC program, and it's just basically what we have available at this point at the end of the current fiscal year, which, of course, will end September 30, and what we could carry forward into 2024 fiscal year if needed.

CATHY WURZER: Might there be any state money available to supplement that federal money if it goes dry?

KATE FRANKEN: That's a good question, and I know that Governor Walz is aware of the situation. I'm sure they'll look into whatever they can do. I don't know specific plans. We're grateful that we do have federal funds to continue with the program for some time, so that's really all I can share at this point.

CATHY WURZER: OK. So you have enough money for at least a time. The shutdown back in 2018, as I know you know, lasted 34 days. So what is plan B in case this is a long, drawn out affair?

KATE FRANKEN: Well, it's a good question know, and we hope, certainly, to not be in that position. My experience with federal government shutdowns previously is that USDA will do everything they can as our funding agency to provide states with funding for continued operations. But of course, there's a limit to the resources available for that.

If we would have to stop the food benefit transactions, essentially, that WIC families receive, which is, really, I think, a concerning thing for us to even think about, and we hope to not get there. But if we were to run out of funds to cover the costs of those supplemental foods that are provided for the WIC participants, we would have to halt transactions.

And of course, that will have a tremendous negative impact on the families that we serve. Also, the WIC authorized stores throughout our state that are the places that WIC households go to redeem those benefits would be affected as well.

CATHY WURZER: What are you hearing from folks out there? I'm sure there have been some phone calls already from worried individuals.

KATE FRANKEN: Yeah. People are concerned, and I think rightly so. It's always concerning when we get this close to the end of the fiscal year, and there isn't an agreement in place. There's still time. I hope that Congress can come forward with a spending agreement of some kind, but the closer we get, the more concerning it is.

And I know that members of the public are hearing information in the news and are concerned about how it might impact their lives, so we want to reassure folks receiving WIC benefits right now and those that maybe are interested in applying for WIC to continue and move forward. Keep your appointments. Use your benefits. We're trying to reassure folks that we'll be in a good position for at least a matter of weeks, and we'll continue to communicate with them as we know more.

CATHY WURZER: How important is WIC to some of the families on the program?

KATE FRANKEN: WIC is really one of the best investments that we can make for children and families. Every federal dollar directed to WIC more than doubles in return on investment. WIC is associated with several positive health outcomes for women and babies, lower rates of premature birth and infant mortality, strengthened cognitive development for young kids, and even better access to health care services.

So WIC is a critical program for the families that we serve, and we want to continue to make those services and benefits available, so it's really a very important program. For decades, WIC has received bipartisan support, and so we're counting on that to continue. If that support disappears, and we don't have adequate funds, it's the families that we serve in our communities that will be hit the hardest.

CATHY WURZER: OK. So bottom line, as you said earlier in our conversation, there's enough money at this point to take that program into October.

KATE FRANKEN: That's correct, yeah.

CATHY WURZER: Kate Franken, thank you for the update.

KATE FRANKEN: Thank you, Cathy.

CATHY WURZER: Kate's the WIC Director for the Minnesota Department of Health.

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