Raleigh, N.C. — Questions are mounting about the Department of Health and Human Services' decision to stop issuing food vouchers to people in a federally funded program designed to ensure proper nutrition for pregnant women and their young children.
The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, also known as WIC, serves 264,000 low-income families in in North Carolina. The program operates in all 50 states, and the federal shutdown affected all of them. But North Carolina was the only state to stop issuing vouchers.
DHHS officials announced Tuesday the agency would stop issuing vouchers because the agency had only enough money to cover the vouchers that had issued in the first eight days of this month.
"Unfortunately, with the federal shutdown, we are following as all the states following the instructions of the federal government," DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos said Tuesday.
Thousands of new applicants and existing clients left WIC clinics empty-handed Wednesday and Thursday.
It's unclear why North Carolina's shutdown was necessary. Late last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture offered each state contingency WIC funding based on its average monthly expenditures.
However, DHHS spokesman Ricky Diaz said Friday the money offered to North Carolina was not sufficient to keep the program's doors open. He said the agency had to go back and ask for more funding before it could reopen WIC, and that extra money wasn't secured until Thursday evening.
More than 1,500 Triangle-area families, including 604 in Cumberland County and 462 in Wake County, were waitlisted during the two-day suspension. County WIC workers spent Friday calling those applicants back to let them know their vouchers were available.
Wos announced the reversal Thursday night, saying DHHS would use lapsing funds from last year, contingency funds from the USDA and product rebates from Nestle Foods, a WIC formula manufacturer, to keep the program running through the end of October.
"By securing sufficient funds, we are able to continue supporting the women and children who depend on WIC," Wos said in a statement. "Our state is one of the highest volume states for the WIC program, so we take the impact of the shutdown very seriously."
Diaz cautioned that, if the shutdown doesn't end soon, the program could be in trouble again by November.