SUNDAY, MARCH 10, 2013

Jamie Tobias Neely: Moms, babies to feel sequestration cuts

A reverie of the grandbaby I plan to welcome soon broke into my consciousness the other morning. I imagined cradling her in my arms and having one of those one-sided conversations you do with babies, explaining that while grandmas don’t do milk, we’re known to excel at cookies.

I take for granted that she’ll be happily breastfed by her well-nourished mother, but I know that one-half of all American babies qualify for nutritional help from the U.S. government. And I fear for them, knowing that the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children has been threatened with a 5.1 percent sequestration cut.

Here in Spokane, pregnant and post-partum moms as well as their kids receive WIC food vouchers for whole-grain foods, low-fat milk and cheese, and fruits and vegetables each month. In Washington, where 24 percent of children are hungry, that can mean the difference between a $49,000 preterm birth and a $4,500 full-term one.

And while WIC provides infant formula, it offers special incentives and support to women who breastfeed their babies.

Nonetheless, sequestration could cut as many as 13,300 women and children from Washington WIC programs, says Tiffany Schamber, the WIC program manager for Spokane Regional Health District. 

Sequestration sounds ever so much more complicated than the details of the lives of Spokane County babies. They’re happiest with another noun: lactation. On its face, it could hardly be simpler. Mom produces milk, baby slurps up milk, milk plumps up chubby little baby thighs.

But, of course, lactation has its own complications. They start with ignorant, outdated notions about the social status and challenges of breastfeeding. They expand with the insidious marketing techniques of infant formula companies. (Give your email address to a maternity store and suddenly formula samples start arriving in your mailbox.) They amplify with the confounding complications of low-paying jobs that employ many working-class mothers. (Just how does one sustain breastfeeding while working in a convenience store, for example, that lacks a private, sanitary room for expressing and storing breast milk?)

Similarly, sequestration features all sorts of complications, starting with the conflicts, threats and dysfunction of the politics that surround it. Schamber flew to Washington, D.C., last week, but she still doesn’t know exactly how sequestration might impact her program’s local participants. She learned that a stopgap measure continues to fund WIC through March 27. (In 2012 her program received grants of $2.3 million.) She expects another might be passed to extend funding six months longer. “A continuing resolution at least gives us a kind of stay of execution … at least until September,” she says.

But what WIC and the rest of the country really needs is a Congress that can pass a federal budget.

Fat chance.

In the meantime, young mothers use WIC checks to stock up on produce like apples, grapes and strawberries, which are more expensive than the Top Ramen and other low-nutrition foods they’d otherwise have to buy.

Kristina Struckman is a 29-year-old North Side mother of four who uses WIC vouchers for her two younger children at her favorite Safeway store. She’s a high-school graduate who had to drop out of college to care for her brothers when their father committed suicide. She’s in a committed relationship with a man who has Parkinson’s disease.

Through WIC she’s learned to successfully breastfeed her children and cook nutritious meals with the foods the program allows. Her repertoire includes banana whole-wheat pancakes topped with strawberries and homemade beef tacos with whole-grain tortillas, cheese and vegetables. She’s even learned how to lure her picky-eater son away from chicken nuggets and fries with snacks of hard-boiled eggs, cheese and those celery, peanut butter and raisin treats her kids call “Ants on a Log.”

Struckman’s voice catches as she contemplates what she would do without the program. She finds sequestration, which also threatens her 4-year-old daughter’s Head Start program, scary.

“I was raised very middle class,” she says. “I never expected to be in the position I am in right now.”

Struckman, who emphasizes how much she appreciates the help, envisions returning to college and studying social work so that she no longer needs government support.

The program that helps feed her children served more than 50 percent of the nation’s babies in 2010. By providing better nutrition and prenatal care to pregnant mothers, WIC reduces the rate of very low-weight, premature births by 44 percent, Schamber says. By encouraging more women to breastfeed exclusively for the first six months, it helps to reduce the incidence of diabetes, obesity, chronic ear infections and asthma. Since 2009, its increased nutrition requirements have even helped reduce the rate of childhood obesity.

Would that we chocolate-chip wielding Grandmas — or for that matter, those blubber-filled politicians — could say as much.

 Jamie Tobias Neely is an assistant professor of journalism at Eastern Washington University. Her email address is jamietobiasneely@comcast.net.

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