Milk could be taken from babies in low-income families if automatic federal budget cuts go into effect Friday.

At the same time, meals normally delivered to senior citizens via Meals on Wheels might disappear - although not in Philadelphia, where the elderly will retain their food but might lose some access to free transportation instead.

In addition, low-income children could lose their spots in Head Start, while child-care assistance might be trimmed as part of the 5.1 percent across-the-board cuts nationwide known as sequestration.

But the key words for all involved are if and when.

If the cuts occur, it's not likely that low-income families and the elderly will see immediate changes, experts said, although the timing of any potential changes isn't known.

"You're going to see vulnerable groups losing access to food aid that they've been relying on," said Julie Zaebst, interim director of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger. "And as devastating as these potential cuts are, they're taking place in a context in which families and seniors are already feeling previous cuts."

If sequestration is triggered - and many experts said Thursday that it seemed inevitable - between 600,000 and 750,000 women and children who receive WIC (formerly known as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) could be cut from the program, according to analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, as well as other government and advocacy groups.

About 17,000 Pennsylvania women and children stand to lose federal WIC benefits, which pay for milk, bread, cheese, and other nutritional staples for low-income pregnant and postpartum women, along with infants and children under 5, according to the Coalition Against Hunger.

In Philadelphia alone, around 3,700 women and children could lose food benefits, said Linda Kilby, who administers the WIC program in the city.

In New Jersey, the number is closer to 11,000, according to Jaya Velpuri, WIC director of the Gateway Community Action Partnership in Bridgeton. The agency oversees the WIC program in Camden and other South Jersey counties.

Regarding Meals on Wheels, Pennsylvania faces a loss of $1.9 million in funding, which means one million fewer meals for 10,000 seniors, according to JoAnn Nenow, president of the Pennsylvania Meals on Wheels Association.

But in Philadelphia, the equation is different. If sequestration occurs, none of the 4,400 daily Meals on Wheels will be cut, nor would the other 3,000 daily meals that are delivered be stopped. "We are not cutting meals," insisted Holly Lange, president of the Philadelphia Corp. for Aging.

Instead, the corporation will curtail a number of the daily 1,700 shared rides offered to seniors, Lange said. These are bus trips, provided by SEPTA and paid for by the state and the corporation, that take seniors to doctor appointments, adult day care, and senior centers.

Lange, like WIC providers, emphasized that changes would not happen overnight and that senior centers and other facilities would be notified if the shared rides are cut.

In New Jersey, around $500,000 would be cut from Meals on Wheels if the sequester takes hold, according to Stephen Considine, chief executive of Senior Citizens United Community Services in Audubon. The agency provides more than 650 meals a day to seniors in Camden and Burlington Counties.

A State of New Jersey spokeswoman declined to offer any information about sequestration, writing in an e-mail, "I would have to refer you to the White House."

Sequestration could also remove 70,000 children from Head Start nationwide, experts said.

And it would mean that families would lose child-care assistance for 30,000 children. The Child Care Assistance Program helps low-income families pay for child care while working, attending school, or training.

In Pennsylvania, 5,400 children would lose access to either Head Start or the child-care subsidy, said Christie Balka, child-care and budget-policy director for Public Citizens for Children and Youth in Philadelphia. And about 700 Head Start teachers could lose their jobs.

There are 32,061 children in Head Start programs in Pennsylvania, Balka said.

The possible cuts could prove especially difficult at a time when just 50 percent of Southeast Pennsylvania children who are eligible for Head Start receive it because of lack of funds, Balka said. In addition, just one in three families eligible for the child-care subsidy in the region currently receive it, also because of a lack of money, Balka added.

In New Jersey, about 1,300 children in Head Start might be affected by the sequester - although it's difficult to say whether they would lose their spots or whether the dollar equivalent of that number of children might be cut, according to Mike Cudemo, vice president of planning for the Gateway Community Action Partnership. He added that there were 14,000 children in Head Start programs throughout New Jersey.