Children need healthy food to learn, grow and thrive. Unfortunately, our researchers and pediatricians at Children’s HealthWatch encounter families every day struggling to afford enough food for all family members to lead active, healthy lives – a condition known as food insecurity. The impact of food insecurity, even at its mildest levels, is written on the bodies and brains of young children with compromised health and development.

Solutions to food insecurity are within reach through the comprehensive set of food and nutrition programs available in the U.S. We at Children’s HealthWatch often compare food assistance programs to vaccines – they keep children healthy, decrease their risk for developmental delays, and benefit whole communities by ensuring parents can go to work because their children are healthy and focused in school supported by the nutrition necessary for learning.

The Child Nutrition Act Reauthorization, which authorizes child nutrition programs, including the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), the National School Lunch Program, National School Breakfast Program, the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), and the Summer Food Service Program, is set to expire on September 30, 2015. These programs are proven ‘vaccines’ for children from birth to high school graduation. Improving them to ensure all children have access to enough of the vital nutrition they need will enable children to grow up healthy and strong.

As Congress considers key changes to child nutrition programs, we hope that they will consider the following evidence-based solutions that will improve the health of young children and their families including proposed improvements to WIC, CACFP, and summer food programs.

1.       Increase eligibility for WIC to age six to close the gap between turning five and entering kindergarten to more fully support the health of this nation’s children:

Many children experience a gap in nutritional support between turning five and entering kindergarten, where they are then able to participate in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs. Increasing WIC eligibility to age six would close this gap and improve the health of young children before they enter school. Continuous access to nutritious foods supports healthy child growth and development and prepares children to enter kindergarten ready to learn. WIC provides children with foods that supply key nutrients, nutrition education, and clinical care from birth to their fifth birthday, during a time of critical brain and body growth.

2.       Strengthen CACFP to address the financial and administrative needs of child care settings  and thus better provide millions of infants and children with access to nutritious food to set a trajectory for lifelong health and well-being.

While CACFP has a relatively small but growing evidence base demonstrating its importance for young children’s diet quality, weight status, and overall health, more research is needed to explore these connections thoroughly and to continue to strengthen the program. Proposed changes to improve the program include:

  • increasing reimbursement rates
  • allowing three meals a day to be reimbursed for children in care for long hours
  • reducing area eligibility tests in order to streamline access to the program
  • decreasing administrative burdens and paperwork
  • continuing to fund CACFP at adequate levels

3.       Enhance efforts to expand the reach of the Summer Food Program and providing low-income families with children an electronic benefits transfer card (EBT) to purchase food during the summer.

During the summer months, children ages 0-18 living in low-income families may be eligible to participate in programs that seek to alleviate food insecurity in households with children, including families with young children. Proposed improvements that will increase access to food for children during summer months include:

  • improving area eligibility tests to allow community-based organizations to participate in the Summer Food Service Program
  • allowing local government agencies and private non-profit organizations to feed children year round through the program
  • providing funds for transportations grants to provide innovative approaches and mobile meals for summer meals
  • allowing all Summer Food Service sites to serve a third meal
  • providing Summer EBT cards to families with children

Children’s HealthWatch is committed to informing public policy conversations related to nutrition programs that affect the health and well-being of young children. Our research and the research of others show that child nutrition programs improve the food security, health and development of young children. We hope that Congress will use this research to inform and invest in policies that support the well-being of our youngest citizens, and in doing so, strengthen our future.

Author: Allison Bovell, MDiv
Research, Policy, and Communications Coordinator
Children’s HealthWatch