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Congress Mulls New Aid to Food Program Hit by Cutbacks

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Washington--Congressional sources were divided last week over the prospects for additional aid to states where rising food prices have led officials to make drastic cutbacks in a federal nutrition program for poor children and pregnant women.

According to a new survey, unanticipated price increases over the past eight months have forced at least 31 states to reduce the number of participants in the Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants, and Children or to cut back on the amount of food each recipient receives.

"It's a big mess and we've got to act quickly, because people are being taken off the rolls," said an aide to Senator Patrick J. Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Mr. Leahy is expected to introduce a supplemental-funding measure this month to help make up the shortfalls, the spokesman said. He estimated that roughly $100 million would be needed to rectify the situation.

But an aide to the House appropriations subcommittee that has jurisdiction over the $2.1-billion wic program said members of that panel would be reluctant to support a supplemental-spending bill.

He maintained that many states exacerbated the problem of rising prices by increasing the number of people on their wic rolls last year, when the Congress approved a $150-million increase for the program.

Because wic is a grant program and not an entitlement, the federal government is not required to provide additional aid to states that have exhausted their budgets.

The program, which is open to pregnant and breastfeeding women as well as infants and children from poor families, currently serves about 50 percent of the mothers and children who are eligible nationwide.

The federal Food and Nutrition Service, the arm of the Department of Health and Human Services that oversees the program, had estimated that food prices would increase by 4 percent for this fiscal year.

But state officials say that prices of certain commodities that are crucial the wic effort increased twice as fast as expected in just the first half of the year.

The increases were triggered by droughts in California and record freezes in Florida that significantly increased the cost of citrus fruit. Orange juice is a staple of the wic food package.

A survey of state agencies in early May, conducted by the National Association of wic Directors, found that, of 44 states responding, 31 were already placing restrictions on participation in the program. Five of 11 programs administered by American Indian governments reported similar moves.

"There are far more states that are experiencing a high increase in costs than aren't," Dennis H. Bach, director of Iowa's wic program and president of the national association, said last week.

He added that although surplus federal funds in some states theoretically could be used in others, "there really isn't a good mechanism to reallocate surpluses to states that need it."

"Besides," he said, "there isn't enough out there to even make a dent in the problem."

Some lawmakers, meanwhile, are warning of continuing troubles with the program in the next fiscal year.

Representative Tony P. Hall, the Ohio Democrat who is chairman of the House Select Committee on Hunger, noted that a $150-million increase that he and others had proposed for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1 will now have to be used "just to stay even."

And the aide to Senator Leahy said the Agriculture Committee chairman was concerned that the nation's three biggest producers of infant formula were moving to cut the rebates they have traditionally offered to wic programs.

The effects on the program, which accounts for one-third of all formula sales in the United States, could be "dramatically" more serious than this year's increase in food prices, the staff member warned.

Mr. Leahy and other lawmakers are discussing the problem with the pharmaceutical companies that produce the formula, he said.

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