WASHINGTON — As the holiday season begins, Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand is hoping to make it easier for low-income families to put food on their tables.
Alongside Sen. Roger W. Marshall, R-Ky., she introduced the MODERN WIC Act in the Senate. The legislation would codify into law some changes to WIC applications and its re-certification process, investing $60 million into the WIC program and making it possible for people to apply online or by mail.
WIC, or the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, is a federal grant program that gives states money to be used specifically for food assistance and nutrition-focused health care. It focuses on low-income pregnant, breastfeeding and new mothers, as well as children up to age 5 who are at risk of not receiving proper nutrition.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, WIC applicants had to physically attend meetings at their local WIC agency office, and had to apply for re-certification to the program in person annually.
“As we’ve learned through the pandemic, many of these services that we used to assume had to be done in person can be done virtually,” Sen. Gillibrand said.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, WIC and many other social safety net programs opened up online application portals, held meetings via video chat and moved much of their operations to a virtual format.
“The first waiver allowed participants to get certified for WIC benefits through a phone or video call,” Sen. Gillibrand said. “The second allowed participants to receive their WIC benefits on WIC EBT carts remotely, or through the mail, so they wouldn’t have to physically go pick up or reload their benefits in person.”
Sen. Gillibrand’s legislation with Sen. Marshall would make those WIC changes law, and provide more funding to allow those services to be made permanent and stable.
The changes should help increase participation in the programs as well, something Sen. Gillibrand said is a necessary goal to achieve.
“Just anecdotally, traveling around New York, the need is exponentially higher,” she said.
The senator said she was recently visiting community centers in Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse and saw there were many people in need of additional help to make ends meet and provide basic needs for their children.
“Only 54% of eligible New Yorkers are actually getting help right now,” she said. “That’s just more than half of who are eligible.”
She said a major reason so many people eligible to receive some sort of social benefit haven’t sought it out is because there’s a lack of awareness. The complicated reapplication processes that require hours of time and travel then make it difficult to get in, or stay in, the programs people know about.
“A lot of it is word-of-mouth,” she said. “People getting into the program is key, and then once we get them in, keeping them in the program so they actually get the nutrition is important.”
The MODERN WIC Act was introduced in the Senate on Nov. 17, and is awaiting action in the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee.