POLITICS
10/10/2013 09:36 am ET | Updated Oct 11, 2013

Government Shutdown Leaves WIC Recipients In North Carolina Without Baby Formula

WASHINGTON -- Chelsea Combs heard through Facebook she'd have to find a new way to buy baby formula this month.

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services said Tuesday it would stop issuing vouchers for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children because of the federal government shutdown.

The department said 80 percent of the state's WIC clients had already received their benefits and could redeem them at stores for the rest of the month. But Combs and her baby are among the 50,000 or so who hadn't picked up their vouchers yet. Combs missed the press release.

"I got no actual notification from anyone," the 21-year-old nursing student said in an interview. Combs has two cans of formula in the cupboard and had planned to pick up WIC vouchers for seven more cans next month. She said she and her husband, who works full time for a builder supply company, will eat more Ramen noodles or reach out to a private charity for help if the shutdown continues.

"People who really do need help are getting it taken away because Congress can't come to an agreement," the Wilmington resident said, flabbergasted. She spread the word on Facebook and said a "friend" told her in response that she should have gotten an abortion.

"I just wanted to tell somebody," she said.

The $7 billion program serves 9 million moms and babies nationally who are poor and at "nutrition risk" because of medical problems or difficulty meeting dietary guidelines. It is one of the only safety net programs affected by the shutdown.

Last week four other states said they'd have to halt WIC benefits, but then reversed themselves after the U.S. Department of Agriculture freed up contingency funds to keep the baby formula flowing through October.

But that wasn't the case in North Carolina, where the announcement on Tuesday that it would stop issuing vouchers came as a total surprise to welfare experts who'd been watching the shutdown. The state blames the federal government. "Some of our most vulnerable citizens, pregnant and breastfeeding women, infants and young children, will be affected by the interruption of WIC services due to the federal shutdown," Aldona Wos, director of the state Department of Health and Humans Services, said in a statement.

Shakila Lewis of Durham said she'd only heard a rumor about WIC benefits stopping before a scheduled appointment at a WIC office on Wednesday.

"When I got there pretty much they were like, they weren't issuing out any more vouchers," Lewis, 27, said in an interview on Wednesday afternoon. "They told us they could put us on a waiting list until the shutdown was over. There was a lot of upset people out there today."

Lewis, who is a nursing student and part-time home health care aide, said she thought it was ridiculous the government shutdown would actually take food from a baby. The program provides separate vouchers for healthy adult food and baby food.

"They could have took the vouchers away from us –- we can get the stuff we need," Lewis said. "At least leave the vouchers for the babies."

UPDATE: 10/11, 11:30 a.m. -- North Carolina has reversed its decision to stop issuing new WIC vouchers because of the government shutdown. Read more here.

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