The White House is warning that some food assistance for new mothers and young children could stop flowing within days of an expected federal government shutdown this weekend.

An estimated 7 million people nationwide could be affected by the disruption as soon as next week. But recipients in Maine wouldn’t feel the impact immediately.

Maine officials say the state has enough funding on hand to continue assisting more than 18,000 currently enrolled recipients through much of October, but the state may have to stop enrolling new families. And a shutdown of more than three or four weeks would lead to a loss of benefits.

Benefits under the Special Supplemental Nutritional Program for Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC, vary depending on household income and “nutrition risk,” which is determined by a health professional. The program helps pregnant and postpartum women and breastfeeding women and children under the age of 5.

WIC works differently than the standard SNAP program, also known as food stamps. That program, along with Social Security and Medicaid payments, would continue uninterrupted during any federal government shutdown. While SNAP benefits can be used to purchase a variety of food products from grocery stores, WIC can be used only for specific nutritious items at certain stores.

Anna Bullett, the WIC director for The Opportunity Alliance, a South Portland-based nonprofit that helps low-income families, said any interruption in benefits – whether it’s a total loss of benefits during a prolonged shutdown or proposed cuts in a Republican budget proposal – would have significant impacts on mothers and young children who aren’t yet old enough to access school meals. She said 3,000 people currently receive WIC benefits in Cumberland County alone.


“There are a lot of things that make WIC super duper important when we’re talking about protecting food security for the most vulnerable members of our society – little kids and pregnant people,” Bullett said. “Child poverty just doubled. Programs like WIC are more important than ever because people don’t have extra cash to ensure they’re buying nutritious food for their families.”


Bullett said WIC is essentially a “food prescription,” with each recipient getting access to prescribed amounts of specific foods based on age, caloric needs, and dietary or medical needs. She said recipients can obtain things like special baby formula, regardless of the cost, with the state reimbursing the store directly. The program also provides some cash assistance for fruits and vegetables.

Unlike SNAP benefits, which don’t increase with inflation and have been reduced to pre-pandemic levels, WIC recipients can purchase the foods they need, even when prices increase because of inflation.

“Food insecurity will immediately go up,” Bullett said of a government shutdown or reduction in benefits. 

WIC applicants must be determined to be at nutritional risk based on an assessment by a physician, nutritionist, dietitian, nurse, or other qualified professional.


Each state administers the federally funded program. In addition to receiving federal funding at different times throughout the year, Maine uses rebates from infant formula purchases to support the program.

A 32-year-old Auburn mother said she relied on WIC to help provide her two daughters, ages 1 and 2, with nutritious food that has become increasingly expensive because of inflation. She spoke about the program on the condition that she not be identified because she didn’t want her story to be made public.

“It’s been especially helpful over the last year because the price of eggs and milk has been skyrocketing,” she said. “It’s been extremely helpful to make sure we have food in the house, especially the essentials.”


Losing those benefits, or having them reduced, would force her to cut spending elsewhere in her family’s budget, which already is stretched thin.

“It’s going to make it difficult for my family,” she said.


The federal government will shut down on Sunday if lawmakers fail to pass a budget bill before the end of the month at midnight on Saturday. A shutdown appears increasingly likely, as a group of conservative lawmakers, known as the Freedom Caucus, are demanding deep spending cuts that are unlikely to pass in the Senate. They also have so far resisted calls to pass a short-term spending deal, known as a continuing resolution, to keep federal workers on the job while budget negotiations continue.

Those Republicans are threatening to oust House Speaker Kevin McCarthy from his leadership role if he allows a budget deal that doesn’t meet their demands. In addition to spending cuts, the group is demanding more border security, the end of COVID-era spending programs, and the elimination of what they believe are “woke policies” in the U.S. military, among other things.

Access to some federal programs, including applications for small business loans, federally backed home mortgages, and passports could grind to a halt during a shutdown. But, except for WIC, critical federal benefits, including Social Security checks, would continue to flow.

Maine spends about $300,000 a week on the WIC program, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

While some states will have to stop providing WIC benefits soon after a government shutdown, DHHS spokesperson Jackie Farwell said Maine has enough funding to continue benefits for most of October, though the state may not be able to enroll new people into the program and would create a waiting list for the first time since the program was created in 1974.

Farwell said such moves could discourage people from accessing benefits in the future.

“Research has found that waiting lists for programs create a chilling effect: fewer families trust programs that put them off, ultimately lowering participation,” Farwell said. “Nutrition is especially important for infants and new parents, and food insecurity during childhood, even for short periods, can have long-term negative effects on a child’s health, well-being, and educational attainment.”

Related Headlines

Comments are no longer available on this story