Harder Leads Bipartisan Coalition to Protect Food and Health Care Access for Women and Children in Need

June 5, 2020
Press Release
Expanded Support, Waivers Passed by Congress to Expire at End of June Without Action

WASHINGTON – Representatives Josh Harder (CA-10) and Jenniffer González-Colón (PR-AL) led a bipartisan coalition of 56 other members of Congress to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue calling on the Secretary to extend waivers which ease requirements for beneficiaries of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (commonly known as WIC) during the Coronavirus Pandemic. Congress has worked with the Department of Agriculture to make it easier for WIC beneficiaries to get recertified to receive benefits, expand food options, and allow people on the program to get their benefits remotely in order to keep women and children from virus exposure, keeping them safe and healthy. Secretary Perdue previously expanded the waiver through the end of June, but members of Congress are asking for them to extend the waivers through the end of September.

“The pandemic isn’t over yet and moms and kids in need don’t need to worry about losing food options or having to fight an overloaded bureaucracy,” said Rep. Harder. “Secretary Perdue did the right thing in extending the waiver through the end of June, and we hope he will do the right thing again and extend it once more.” 

“The WIC program is one of our main tools to provide valuable assistance to low income families. In Puerto Rico, we have noticed an increase in demand and participation in nutrition programs during the emergency period,” said Rep. González Colón. ”Therefore we need to ensure agencies at the state level are well-equipped with proper funding and flexibilities to continue administering these programs and undertake changes in operations related to COVID-19. Extending waivers and flexibilities that were authorized in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and are currently in place will help continue promoting safe practices during the ongoing pandemic, while also accommodating increase in demand during these challenging times. I am proud to co-lead this letter alongside my colleague, Congressman Harder on behalf of American families to extend WIC flexibilities until September 30, 2020.”

“As the nation continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, USDA must provide states with flexibility by extending waivers that adapt WIC services through September 30. Pregnant women and parents should not be forced to choose between having enough food for their children and risking their own health,” said Rev. Douglas Greenaway, President & CEO of the National WIC Association. “We applaud Reps. Josh Harder and Jennifer González-Colón for leading this effort and championing the concerns of WIC providers across the nation. Each state is developing their own plan to safely reopen clinics and resume normal WIC operations, but USDA must afford states with adequate flexibility to meet the needs of each individual community. Failure to fully extend waivers would deter families from seeking vital nutrition assistance at a time of unprecedented economic instability and uncertainty.”

“Our local agency is very appreciative of the USDA waivers. With these waivers in place we have been able to safely have our WIC staff continue working from both the office and remotely while still being able to serve the WIC families in our community,” said Andrea Weiss, Director of Community Medical Centers WIC, Stockton. “The COVID pandemic hit hard and fast and we were able to quickly adapt into a situation that put both our staff and participants at ease.  We have really benefited from having these waivers in place – we have had an increase in WIC participation rates, improved enthusiasm with our WIC families, and an overall sense of safety and service have been instilled in our WIC sites. Extending these waivers are crucial for WIC because our  sites are not ready to safely open to the public. We need time and resources to plan for a phased opening that would ensure the safety of the women, infants, and children we serve.”

“Extending the waivers for WIC means low-income families, women, infants and children are able to purchase the foods they need while limiting exposure to COVID-19 as much as possible. When I tell families about the temporary food expansion, they are very encouraged and relieved knowing that they now have more flexibility when it comes to purchasing their WIC foods,” said Jennifer Yeh, Public Health Nutritionist, Santa Clara County WIC. “I also had the privilege as an LVL for my agency to contact some of our assigned authorized WIC vendors about the temporary food expansion. Their responses were also generally positive and eager to spread this information to their staff. One participant mentioned today that she was unaware of the food expansion until she went to Walmart, who had updated their WIC labels to mark the temporary WIC authorized products to make it easier for participants to identify in case their usual WIC foods are unavailable. If these wavers are extended, then WIC staff and authorized vendors can continue to help families purchase the foods they need during this difficult time.” 

The text of the letter is below and an original copy is available here.

 

Dear Secretary Perdue,

Thank you for your efforts to ensure continued access to federal nutrition programs throughout the COVID-19 public health emergency. We are writing regarding the waivers issued to state agencies for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), in accordance with the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. These waivers permit WIC agencies to establish remote recertification for applicants, expand available food options through product substitutions, and remotely issue benefits either through mail, remote loading of an EBT card, or drive-through clinics. We applaud your agency’s extension of these critical waivers to June 30, 2020, and additionally, request that you extend them once again to September 30, 2020, consistent with the authority granted under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.

States and localities require flexibility to ensure public safety during the crisis. The decision of when and how to reopen is being made at the state and local level, with governors, mayors, and county supervisors working to determine the best way forward for each community. State and local governments and frontline providers need the certainty of knowing that necessary flexibilities will not expire before a reopening plan is put into place, an outcome that would force low-income women and children to have to choose between vital nutrition support or their family’s own health and safety.

WIC, like many programs that support low-income Americans, is in a period of increased demand. In California alone, there’s been more than a 10 percent increase in participation in WIC over the past two months. Those new participants will need to be certified – a process that the waivers allow to be conducted virtually or telephonically. WIC programs across the country need to know that they’re going to be able to meet the additional demand for the remainder of the crisis while still maintaining safety precautions and that their existing participants won’t need to put themselves at unnecessary risk to recertify their eligibility in the future.

Frontline WIC providers need time to put safety precautions in place, which includes making structural modifications to clinics to accommodate for social distancing and procuring protective equipment, which has proved increasingly difficult given widespread demand. Many state agencies are also planning phased reopening, which would require extensions of the waiver to limit initial clinic-based activities to maintain the safety of both participating families and clinic staff.

Most importantly, women and children who receive WIC benefits – particularly ones receiving benefits for the first time - need the stability of knowing that this program will be there for them whether or not they feel safe leaving their homes. This is a time of unprecedented crisis in every aspect of Americans’ lives, and we need to show them that we’re going to be there for them. We have the ability to provide this relief in full, not in piecemeal, and that is why we urge you to extend these waivers to September 30, 2020 – the maximum time permitted by the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.

We appreciate your time and consideration and look forward to working with you in the future.