I wish our congressional delegation understood what it means to go to the grocery store and not be able to buy infant formula for your baby. —Gina Cornia, executive director of Utahns Against Hunger
SMITHFIELD, Cache County — Stacie Hale didn't expect to need the supplemental nutrition program Women, Infants and Children.
Her husband, Kortney, was earning a handsome living working on natural gas and crude oil pipelines in North Dakota.
"We were able to get caught up on our bills. I went through a really rough pregnancy and I wasn't able to work for the duration. We finally got our heads above water and we were looking into building a home," she said.
Suddenly, Kortney Hale had to quit his job to return to Utah to care for his daughter from his first marriage. The loss of income sent the family into a tailspin, Stacie Hale said. "It was a huge pay cut."
To make ends meet, and to ensure the couple's children had sufficient nutrition, Stacie Hale had planned to apply for WIC. The shutdown of the federal government put those plans on hold, too, she said.
"I think it (the government shutdown) is huge because it affects a lot of people. We hadn't had to rely on the government. We had an unfortunate circumstance and that's why we needed the government's help and now it's not available," she said.
In Utah, most of the federally funded WIC clinics that serve some 66,000 Utahns were shuttered at the end of business Tuesday, said Tom Hudachko, spokesman for the Utah Department of Health.
The clinics were open Tuesday to cancel upcoming appointments with clients who visit the clinic for health screenings, education program and distribution of food vouchers. No new vouchers were issued Tuesday, but existing three-month vouchers for food can be used to obtain food, Hudachko said.
In Utah, WIC benefits are primarily administered through local health departments, which means 270 employees will be furloughed, in addition to 20 staff members at the state health department, Hudachko said.
The Salt Lake County Council, in emergency action Tuesday, agreed to appropriate funds to keep its WIC offices open for another week.
“While the shutdown is in effect, staff will continue to accept emergency-need applications and will direct those who qualify for emergency assistance to a food pantry, where food supplies purchased with the county’s help will be provided to the eligible recipient,” Gary Edwards, Salt Lake County Health Department director, said in a statement.
Closing the offices obviously hurts families with young children, Stacie Hale said. "But there are also those employees, the ones that help us. They're not able to feed their families because they're going without pay. That's their livelihood, too," she said.
Gina Cornia, executive director of Utahns Against Hunger, said the political gamesmanship behind the government shutdown has real-world implications for struggling families. "People who experience and feel the fallout are the people who can least afford it," she said.
Cornia flew to Washington D.C. Tuesday and plans to meet with members of Utah's congressional delegation to discuss the impact of the shutdown.
"I wish our congressional delegation understood what it means to go to the grocery store and not be able to buy infant formula for your baby," she said. "How are families supposed to carve out extra money from their already stressed budgets to buy formula?"
Chelsea Henriquez, a single mother of a 5-month-old son and a 4-year-old daughter in Salt Lake County, said WIC provides important nutrition to her family — particularly infant formula.
Even with the benefit, Henriquez, a full-time college student, pays out of pocket for formula to ensure her son has enough to eat. The formula he needs is soy-based and costs about $18 for a small can.
"For me, the biggest threat is I don't know how on my monthly budget I'm going to meet his formula needs. This is just crazy. One of the first things you (the federal government) takes away is infant formula and food to feed kids?"
The government shutdown is tantamount to a school yard fight, she said.
"The Republicans are fighting with (President) Obama and neither of them can be big boys and talk about. In the midst of that, they're going to take away formula and food from children. I don't understand that."