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Michigan food assistance programs hearing from worried clients

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In just one county, 5,000 families get federal help buying healthy food for their kids

The federal shutdown is hitting struggling Michigan families where they live.

At first, panicked calls flooded into Washtenaw County health services, says Karen Lewis.

She helps run the Women, Infants and Children program (WIC), which help low-income moms get milk, bread, vegetables and fruit for their kids.

Every month, the county serves some 5,000 families who look to WIC, says Lewis.

“Clients were calling back to back, all day long, asking us if we were closed, if we were still in service. They definitely have worry, because for some families, this is their only source.” 

"Clients were calling back to back, all day long, asking us if we were closed, if we were still in service. They definitely have worry, because for some families, this is their only source."

Lewis tells them all she knows right now: Michigan food and nutrition programs, like WIC and Meals on Wheels, should have enough money to make it to the end of the month.

The other deadline: November 1st

“We do have enough funding to get us through the next four weeks or so,” says Angela Minicuci in an email.

She’s the spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Community Health, which administers the WIC program.

Those clinics are still open, she adds, and they’re even able to keep accepting new families to the program – like women who just found out they’re pregnant or just had a baby.

But if the shutdown continues into November – which it is not expected to – that’s when these programs may really be on the brink.

“For the next few weeks we can get by,” says Dave Akerly in a text message. He’s with the Michigan Department of Human Services, which runs the Family Independence Program (FIP) that gives cash assistance on a temporary basis to struggling families.

About 100,000 Michiganders received help from FIP in August, says Akerly. Almost half that money comes from Washington.  

When or if that federal money runs out, “we have a variety of state funds that can be used," Akerly said. "Currently we are working on contingency plans along with other state departments.”

"We are working on contingency plans [if the money runs out]."

That’s the company line for a lot of state programs that need federal money to help Michiganders: we’re working on it.

Growing anxiety as shutdown continues

Yet on a personal level, Karen Lewis of Washtenaw County’s WIC program says she still worries that things could go off the rails any day now.

Lewis wonders, what if tomorrow, some administrator calls the office and says, the WIC program no longer has funding?

“One, I’ll be out a job. And two, you’re going to have all these families wondering where their 

"All these families wondering where their next meal is going to come from."

next meal is going to come from,” Lewis says. She says some staff members at the county’s WIC program also use WIC to feed their own children: a family of four making up to $43,000 a year is eligible for the program.

Some of their client families do receive food stamps, Lewis says. Others go to food gatherers in their areas. But Lewis says many don’t have another way of feeding healthy food to their families.

“We always hear worry on a regular basis, even if there wasn’t a shutdown. They look to us to do it all. We have to remind them to relax, calm down, and give them whatever resources we have to offer them.”

Lewis says she gets angrier with Congress for every day they let the shutdown continue.

“I feel like it’s very immature and petty. And they know there’s an easy solution, but they’re able to just play with people’s lives because they’re not in their situation.” 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.