Community must speak out on behalf of WIC

One act, more than any other, is indispensible from the Passover story:

If God had not intervened, we would still be slaves. There would have been no Exodus, no Sinai, no bright future for the Jewish people. For the sake of a future nation, God intervened to save 600,000 warriors of Israel.

Remember that number. It’s about the same number of mothers and children who will be cut off from nutrition assistance if nothing is done to stop the sequester’s bulldozer-like roll toward the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). Once again, an intervention is needed for the sake of a nation.

Without freedom from Egypt, the descendants of Jacob could never grow, could never receive the Torah and could never live as they wanted. Likewise, without the benefit of prenatal and pediatric health care, nutrition education and access to healthy food, our children will be vulnerable to adverse birth outcomes, dental problems, anemia, obesity and hunger.

The future of our nation — built by a healthy generation of children — is at risk if we do not intervene. Due to political gridlock and myopic opposition to government services, WIC faces a 5.1 percent hatchet. As the sequester’s implementation was delayed, the impact because of the compressed timeline will be closer to a 9 percent chop.

More than 600,000 low-income women, infants and children will lose this vital lifeline if the arbitrary sequester is not replaced with a thoughtful, long-run deficit reduction strategy.

That is why our organizations again mobilized Jewish communities around the country to hold Hunger Seders and raise awareness not only of the ongoing oppression of hunger, but of the tools we have to end it. On March 20, we kicked off the campaign at the U.S. Capitol with a special National Hunger Seder attended by members of Congress, Obama administration officials, schoolchildren, and faith and anti-poverty advocates.

Our message to Congress and the country is a simple one: We must protect the WIC program because WIC protects our children. WIC is available exclusively to impoverished women (WIC participants have an average annual income of a meager $16,449) and their children.

In 2009, WIC served an average of 8.9 million participants each month, providing education about the benefits of breastfeeding, access to maternal, prenatal, and pediatric health care services, or financial support to purchase nutritious groceries. According to the National WIC Association, for $759 a year per participant, WIC saves tens of thousands of dollars in health care costs by preventing birth complications and infant hospitalization.

Even if the investment in WIC just saved us money on health care, we would say dayenu — it would be enough — to spare the program from painful reductions. But the benefits of WIC far exceed financial savings. Children benefiting from WIC — more than half of all infants born in the United States — not only are born healthier but live healthier lives. Compared to those not in the program, WIC children are less likely to be hungry, more likely to be immunized and better prepared to perform in school for years to come.

Replacing the sequester is an important step, but this single move will correct a mistaken plan never intended to go into effect in the first place. Moving forward, we must strengthen WIC so that it can effectively reach the millions of pregnant woman and mothers who lack proper education on breastfeeding or nutrition.

More than 3,000 years ago, God wanted the children of Jacob to grow and prosper as a people, so God intervened on behalf of 600,000 to ensure they were on the right path.

Today we want the same for our children — to set them on the path to a healthy and prosperous future. If we allow WIC to be arbitrarily hacked by the sequester, fewer children will realize the healthy practices that would help them reach their full God-given potential, and our society will be poorer and weaker because of it.

So we are called on by our faith, our humanity and our obligation to future generations to intervene on behalf of 600,000 — for the sake of our nation.

Abby Leibman is the president and CEO of Mazon. Rabbi Steve Gutow is the president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.