Philly-area families could soon be waitlisted for food assistance unless Congress acts immediately. Here’s why

Congress faces a possible government shutdown if a deal isn't reached by March 1, which could affect 51,000 in Pa. by exacerbating budget shortfalls for the WIC program.

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A box of bell peppers sitting on a table

File - Fresh produce at the Narberth Community Food Bank. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) is in jeopardy unless Congress passes a national budget on Friday.

The WIC program is facing a $1 billion funding shortfall — which the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) indicated in January — putting around 6.7 million pregnant mothers and children at risk of losing access to nutritional foods nationwide.

A partial government shutdown could exacerbate the program’s ongoing funding deficit, affecting around 51,000 eligible Pennsylvanians, said Nicholas Imbesi, Chester County Food Bank’s senior manager of government relations.

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In Chester County, food banks are preparing to fill the gaps, but he said the end result could leave thousands of families waitlisted for food assistance.

“It’s gonna be a double whammy by the time we get to September because the Farm Bill — which also includes food assistance programs like SNAP (Supplemental Food Assistance Program), and federally funded food programs that food banks depend on like TFAP (Emergency Food Assistance Program) — was extended until the fiscal year ending on September 30th,” he said.

Chester County Food Bank serves around 4,000 WIC-eligible Chester County residents. Even as the Commonwealth’s wealthiest county, many residents struggle with inaccessible transportation, low wages and a lack of affordable housing.

“That comes with an expensive cost of living here in Chester County,” he said. “A family of four with two working adults, to meet all their needs, needs to make a little over $111,000. To qualify for food assistance programs, you need to make 200% of the federal poverty level. So a family of four, that’s around $55,500.”

Founded in 2009, Chester County Food Bank has taken a “whole approach” to tackle food insecurity. The food bank offers educational programs on cooking and growing food, and its Fresh2You Mobile Market travels throughout the county from June to November.

“We have a transportation issue here in Chester County,” he said. “If somebody from the Coatesville area needs to travel here to the food bank, it’s a seven-hour round trip on SEPTA service. Fortunately, due to our community partners, sponsors and donors, we’re able to meet that need.”

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Chester County Food Bank has also been preparing for a “rainy day,” said CEO Andrea Youndt, for circumstances such as a lack of federal funding.

“We’ve created what we call our ‘emergency food fund’ where we have some money in an account, which is basically for purposes like the government shutdown,” she said. “So we want to instill confidence in our neighbors that we’re going to be for them…We’re not going to close our doors if the government shuts down. We’re going to be here for them.”

Congress has two crucial deadlines coming up: March 1 to fund the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs, and March 8 for Department of Health and Human Services funding.

Support for WHYY’s coverage of health equity issues comes from the Commonwealth Fund.

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