It’s a chilly morning as Maricela Villegas hurries through the doors of the Woman, Infants and Children Lower West Side center at 1643 W. Cermak Road. She has a 1-year-old son and is pregnant with another child.
Inside the center, a mini grocery store and pharmacy, where it’s toasty warm, Villegas picks up a prescription for her son and buys groceries with her WIC voucher.
In a few weeks, Villegas may not be able to shop here for food essentials if the federal government shutdown continues. Funding for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC, stopped Oct. 1. Now the program’s short-term future is in jeopardy.
Statewide, 280,000 mothers and infants depend on WIC, and almost half—43 percent— of them live in Cook County, according to Januari Smith, communications manager, Illinois Department of Human Services. States administer the WIC program, but the federal government funds it. Illinois receives about $225 million a year from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for WIC.
“The State of Illinois has adequate funding to maintain WIC through the end of October,” Smith says. “We’re in discussions to review our options of what to do next if the shutdown lasts past October.”
In Cook County, which includes Chicago, 122,645 people participate in the WIC program.
The Chicago Department of Public Health administers 16 WIC food centers, or mini grocery stores, that are operated by Catholic Charities, including the one where Villegas can purchase food staples with her WIC vouchers.
“Clients have been calling, very concerned with what will happen,” says Margaret Saunders, the WIC director for CEDA, a Cook County community action agency that provides counseling and education services. A family typically gets WIC vouchers to cover three months, Saunders explains. But a monthly voucher can’t be used ahead of time. “We don’t know what to tell them” about what will happen after Oct 31.
WIC supplies low-income women with checks or debit cards they can use to purchase infant formula and cereal, fruits and vegetables, dairy items and other healthy foods. CEDA has 18 clinics and an active caseload of 50,000 of moms and babies under age 5 in the WIC program, which serves the low-income and working poor. A typical food package for a child is about $45 a month for very basic diet staples—milk, cereal and eggs. Many mothers use WIC also to purchase infant formula.
Saunders says if the WIC system breaks down, CEDA will rely heavily on food pantries, “an important partner of ours.” But those pantries could be quickly overwhelmed, she adds.
Villegas doesn’t want to think about what she would do if the Cermak Road WIC center has to close. She relies on WIC more than ever since her hours were reduced at the Chicago public school where she was working.
Without WIC, Villegas says she would have to choose between food and paying for other essentials. WIC “gives me a chance to buy, at least, milk, cereal, tortillas.”
Yana Kunichoff contributed to this post.