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As federal budget negotiations snag on politically divisive topics, the basic needs of Minnesota's rural mothers and their newborns are at risk due to the imminent funding gap for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC.

For five decades, WIC has been a lifeline for low-income pregnant and postpartum women. Study after study has shown that WIC improves health outcomes. All eligible applicants have had access to WIC since 1997 thanks to long-standing bipartisan support.

Access to this program is now under threat, as WIC faces a potential $1 billion shortfall amid a broader debate about federal spending. Minnesota WIC Director Kate Franken recently told the New York Times that over 30,000 eligible Minnesotans could be turned away from WIC if Congress fails to increase program funding by early March.

Anti-hunger advocates say this would be devastating in the midst of soaring rates of food insecurity, especially among children, racially marginalized groups and rural communities. We echo these concerns, but want to highlight another consequence of weakening WIC: cutting off access to an effective local public health program in the midst of a worsening maternal health crisis.

WIC serves as a vital entry point into the health system for low-income pregnant and postpartum individuals during a period of heightened health risk. Many new mothers visit a local WIC clinic mere days after childbirth, for breastfeeding support, infant formula or both. WIC staff are trained to refer participants to health care providers when concerns arise; the referral role of WIC should not be overlooked given that 19% of maternal deaths occur in the first six days after childbirth and another 21% within six weeks. This makes warnings from WIC officials that postpartum individuals will be among the first wait-listed in a budget shortfall particularly alarming.

While the repercussions of a gap in WIC funding will be felt in all Minnesota communities, the most affected may be families in rural areas. WIC participants are less likely to give birth to their babies preterm, which may hold particular significance in rural communities where a steady rate of maternity unit closures renders the closest site for care further and further away.

Minnesota is not immune from national trends. Just days ago, Essentia Health announced that it is permanently closing its maternity unit in Fosston. This creates access challenges with potential consequences for both rural and racial health equity, given the proximity of the White Earth reservation to Fosston and the shameful fact that American Indian Minnesotans are eight times more likely to die during pregnancy or in the postpartum year than white Minnesotans.

A recent study we conducted revealed that rural communities that lose their labor and delivery units also lack access to other maternal-infant health resources, such as childbirth education and postpartum support groups. However, WIC stood out in our study as one of the few maternal health resources that remain consistently present in rural communities even after their hospital's maternity unit closes.

The importance of WIC to rural families also includes essential breastfeeding support services. Just last week we published research showing that the Minnesota WIC Breastfeeding Peer Counseling Program helped participants breastfeed their babies longer. The greatest impact was observed in Minnesota's rural counties.

The United States infamously has the highest maternal mortality rate of all high-income countries, with rural communities facing elevated risks. As our country grapples with policy solutions to this crisis, preserving funding for proven maternal health programs such as WIC should be nonnegotiable.

Alyssa Fritz and Julia Interrante are researchers at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. Katy Backes Kozhimannil is Distinguished McKnight University Professor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health.