As North Carolina resumes issuing benefits to poor women and their children through a federally funded program, some groups are questioning why the state suspended them in the first place, then reversed course two days later.
State Health and Human Services Department announced Tuesday that it would halt vouchers for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children program because it lacked sufficient funds.
North Carolina was the first state to halt its WIC program.
But in a news release Thursday night, State Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos said her department had secured additional money to extend the WIC program through October.
Wos' department said the money came from leftover cash from last year, more contingency funds from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and rebates from WIC formula manufacturer Nestle.
Local health departments were being alerted to resume issuing vouchers.
WIC provides food vouchers, nutrition education and health care referrals for 264,000 women and children monthly in North Carolina. The federal government usually pays the program's $205 million cost.
Groups that help the poor were troubled the state had stopped issuing vouchers - especially when the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the program, said it would provide $125 million in contingency funds to help states keep WIC programs running during the shutdown.
The Rev. Douglas Greenaway, president of the nonprofit National WIC Association, said he doesn't know why the program was suspended in North Carolina.
"It's a mystery to us," he said Friday.
But he said it caused undue stress on families.
"We don't understand why this had to happen. North Carolina was the outlier in this. USDA had provided them with contingency funds. So it's perplexing. This created even greater uncertainty in the lives of these vulnerable mothers and children - unnecessarily," Greenaway said."
U.S. Rep. David Price, D-N.C. also said he didn't understand the state's move.
"North Carolina was the only state in the country to discontinue benefits. It is not clear why the (Gov. Pat) McCrory Administration disrupted benefits with these funds available, but I am pleased they have abruptly reversed course," he said in a news release.
DHHS spokesman Ricky Diaz said Friday his department issued an Oct. 3 news release warning of possible funding problems with the program - and that WIC would continue to enroll new participants until at least Tuesday, Oct. 8.
In the news release, Wos said: "DHHS will maintain the WIC program as long as existing federal funds will allow."
USDA spokesman Bruce Alexander said Friday his department calculated early on how much money states would need to continue the WIC program during the government shutdown.
"We went across each state to make sure that they had everything they needed for as long as this shutdown was going to last. We wanted to make sure we gave them enough to operate on," he said.
He said he couldn't discuss specifics of what happened in North Carolina.
"We don't want to point the finger at anybody. In a situation like this you just want to work together," he said.
While Diaz said no contingency funds were turned down, he didn't immediately answer specific questions about when funds those were requested.
But Diaz warned that other states could be facing similar problems if the federal shutdown continues.
"More states might be forced to turn away new WIC enrollees, or stop redeeming existing vouchers. Benefits are in jeopardy nationwide because of the federal shutdown," he said.