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00000179-cdc6-d978-adfd-cfc6d7ca0000Harvest Public Media is a reporting collaboration focused on issues of food, fuel and field. Based at KCUR in Kansas City, Missouri, Harvest covers agriculture-related topics through a network of reporters and partner stations throughout the Midwest.Like Harvest Public Media on Facebook or follow them on Twitter @HarvestPM.

Gap In WIC Sends Some Families Into Food Insecurity

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Grant Gerlock
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Harvest Public Media/ File Photo

Many low-income families struggle to afford enough food. Moms and kids who qualify can participate in a federal program geared toward early development. Once kids turn five, though, they are no longer eligible for the benefits. Harvest Public Media’s Kristofor Husted reports on how that puts families at risk.

It’s 7:30 in the morning at Battle Elementary School in Columbia, Missouri. Students hop off of their buses, head down the hallway past a few folding tables with crates of milk, fruit juice and warm muffins sitting on top.

Laina Fullum is the director of nutrition services for the Columbia public school district. Here, it’s not just low-income students who pick up a free breakfast on the way to class.

"It’s for all students, which takes the stigma away from students eating with us," Fullum says. "Everybody’s doing it, so it’s just the natural thing to do at the beginning of the day."

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Credit National WIC Association
WIC logo

For low-income families, putting nutritious meals on the table can be challenging. Nationally, schools served $1.8 billion free breakfasts in 2015, and even more free or cheap lunches.

Even with free meals at school courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Fullum says she knows many of these students are still hungry at home.

“The one thing we do notice is that students eat a lot on Monday and eat a lot on Friday because a few of them know when they get home, there’s not going to be much there," she says.

So what about the kids who aren’t in school yet? That’s what the Women, Infants and Children program is for: it provides food and other benefits to some eight million moms and young kids nationwide.

“At that time, if I didn't have it, what it would mean my kids not having enough during the day to eat, you know," says Chantelle DosRemedios.

DosRemedios was pregnant with her second child when she and her husband both lost their jobs. She depended on WIC for the extra help.

“It was such a great help when you have nothing coming in until you can get back on your feet again,” DosRemedios says.

But the WIC program only provides benefits to children under 5. When DosRemedios’ first son turned five, he still hadn’t started kindergarten, so he couldn’t take advantage of free school meals.

That "donut hole"–the gap between aging out of WIC and starting school–hits lots of families, DosRemedios says, and she wishes that gap was bridged.

“I believe that would help a lot of parents because it is an additional cost for a whole year providing extra food until they can get into a full-day kindergarten or a full-day school,” she says.

“Our research showed that there's a spike in food insecurity right around this age point, when children lose eligibility for WIC,” says Colleen Heflin, who specializes in food policy as a professor at the University of Missouri.

Heflin recently published new research looking at kids who fall into this gap. She found that losing a food package for one child can plunge the whole family into an unstable situation without enough food. When a family of five has to split four meals, no one gets enough to eat.

And, she says, a lack of nutritious food can have lasting effects on the kids.

“There are physical effects, mental health effects, cognitive effects," Heflin says. "We know there's differences in family functioning. And even somewhat obvious things like families are less likely to eat meals together which we know has impacts on all sorts of positive pro social behaviors.”

When children fall into this gap, the families sometimes enroll in SNAP, or food stamps, while others shop at the food bank. So here’s the idea: extend WIC eligibility to age 6.

“And this would, for most of the children in our survey, close that gap entirely,” Heflin says.

There’s a bill sitting in the U.S. Senate right now that does just that: raises the age cutoff. 

“We ought to be doing everything we can to facilitate ease of access reducing those barriers," says Douglas Greenaway, president of the National WIC Association, which advocates for low-income families. "So you know let's streamline access to the program.”

But in 2015, the program costs about $6.2 billion. Extending eligibility would likely increase the price--which means changing who qualifies for WIC an uphill battle.