By Samantha Salazar Ordonez
On October 1 of this year, the United States federal government entered a shutdown that would last through October 16. This event affected many Americans in different ways, but of utmost importance to us are the effects of the shutdown on food, health, and nutrition.
The greatest impact on the United States Department of Agriculture involved the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), especially for the state of North Carolina. In a press release, Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Secretary Aldona Wos said, “Some of our most vulnerable citizens, pregnant and breastfeeding women, infants and young children, will be affected by the interruption of WIC services due to the federal shutdown.” Several WIC offices discontinued issuing benefits due to lack of funding. Many of these vulnerable citizens did not receive adequate nutrition during the shutdown, and were instead advised to apply for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to get their benefits.
The DHHS also experienced difficulties because 52 percent of its employees were furloughed. The Head Start Program, which provides education, health, nutrition, and parent involvement services to low-income families with children, was unable to grant money to 23 programs in 11 states. Inadequate funding sets back low-income families even further: the children of participating families were not only unable to get proper nutrition, but they lost their access to preschools and early education.
Affected sub-agencies of the DHHS include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
After needing to furlough 68 percent of its employees, the CDC was forced to discontinue investigations of outbreaks that might be occurring simultaneously in multiple states, as well as flu surveillance at a critical time in the year. This is a huge danger to the nation – if an outbreak was to occur or if this year’s flu season got out of hand, the CDC would not have enough power to examine and contain the crisis. The FDA, which furloughed 45 percent of its employees, stopped most of its laboratory research and all routine safety inspections, leaving us at a greater risk of a foodborne illness outbreak. However, they were still able to handle emergencies and high-risk product recalls. The NIH was forced to cease conducting research and updating information on public domains. This left academics unable to make breakthroughs and students without access to an integral part of their education.
Effects of the government shutdown were felt right here at Tufts University. The shutdown of the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA) at Tufts University meant the closure of the largest research center in the world, devoted to the study of nutrition in the prevention of age-related chronic and infectious diseases.
Today, we can breathe a little easier with the re-opening of the US government. Research has resumed at the NIH and HNRCA. Fortunately, no widespread outbreaks of disease or foodborne illness occurred during the shutdown and the CDC and FDA have opened their doors to protect us once again. Nutrition-related programs such as WIC and Head Start have also reopened and are once again able to distribute benefits.
However, while this all seems like a happy ending, the government will once again need to decide on a federal budget this coming January. Although the risk of another government shutdown seems to be low, departments and programs must be prepared for anything that can happen that may jeopardize funding and food distribution.
Samantha Salazar Ordonez is a first-year student in the Master of Science and Dietetic Internship program at Friedman.