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The Salt Lake County Council stepped up Tuesday to ensure some of the county's neediest mothers and their children get vital foodstuffs despite the federal shutdown.
Declaring an emergency, the council voted to spend up to $137,500 to buy a week's worth of food for an estimated 25,000 women and children who have not obtained vouchers for these supplies for October. The funding also prevents temporary job losses for 64 county employees who run the operation at six clinics in the valley.
Both food vouchers and employee salaries are provided through the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, which will be suspended at 5 p.m. because Congress failed to pass a bill appropriating funding to keep the federal government operating.
"It's frustrating beyond belief," said Republican County Councilman Michael Jensen. "I pray and hope those knuckleheads get their act together."
Democratic Councilman Jim Bradley raised the issue, contending "we're facing a crisis where we have 25,000 [people] who won't be able to get essential nutrition. … What are these families going to do?"
Lori Bays, the county's director of human services, said WIC vouchers are given monthly to qualified, low-income women to help them get basic food necessities eggs, milk, bread, fruit, vegetables and infant formula. A voucher's value depends on a recipient's need, as determined by the clinics' county employees.
While many voucher recipients have received what they needed for October, the 25,000 number applies to women who were late getting their vouchers or who will come onto the system this week. Without vouchers, Bays added, these folks "would not have access to food resources they typically have."
Her staff posted signs on clinic doors Tuesday, saying the program was suspended and directing recipients to other food providers, such as the Utah Food Bank. The county's funding will help provide additional supplies for food pantries.
But Bays noted those private aid groups probably cannot sustain an onslaught of new customers and frequently do not have infant formula, especially versions for babies with special needs.
"This is about mothers and their children in a time of need," said Republican Councilman Max Burdick. "If ever there's a time for us to step up, it's now."
While Republican Councilman David Wilde sympathized with the recipients and impacted county employees, he said he thought the shutdown would be short and that it would be more prudent for the council to wait a week, relying on charities and church aid organizations in the meantime, to see "if it truly becomes an emergency."
"This is an opportunity to say we have some charitable-minded individuals and groups out there," Wilde said. "We should test that system out. I'm sorry if I'm Mr. Scrooge on this, but I'm going to vote no."
He was outvoted 7-1 (Democrats Sam Granato and Randy Horiuchi were absent).
Said Jensen: "I don't disagree, David, [but] let's make sure we don't have somebody going hungry or people worrying they can't provide for their children."
Added Burdick: "We're here to help those in need. If there's a fire, we come to the rescue. Here, there's a need for nutrition. We're going to fund this for a week so the system doesn't collapse."
If the shutdown lasts more than a week, the council made plans to address the situation at next Tuesday's meeting and to consider dipping into reserves for more funding.
The Salt Lake County Health Department has six clinics where vouchers for essential nutrients are provided through the federal Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program. The clinics are at:
• 799 N. Redwood Road, Suite A, Rose Park
• 610 S. 200 East, Salt Lake City
• 3690 S. Main St., South Salt Lake
• 4535 S. 5600 West, West Valley City
• 1740 W. 7800 South, West Jordan
• 9340 S. 700 East, Sandy
Source: Salt Lake County