What Are the Benefits of the SNAP Program?

Last week, we joined MomsRising for their regular #FoodFri Twitter chat. The topic for this chat: the benefits of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as SNAP, for American families. We joined as co-hosts with our friends at Food Resource Action Center (FRAC), and the Center on Budget Policy and Priorities.

Below are NCLR highlights from the chat. Join MomsRising for their #FoodFri chat every Friday at 1 pm ET.

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The End of the School Year Doesn’t Mean the End of Good Nutrition

fruits-and-veggies_largeWith the school year coming to an end, working parents must think of alternative plans for their children during summer vacation. This can be a challenging time for low-income families who need to replace the social and academic stimulation that school provides, as well as the free or reduced-cost meals for which their children qualify.

A school-based summer camp offering a summer meal program may be a good option for some families. The federally funded Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) covers the cost of healthy meals to children and teens (younger than 18 years of age) in low-income areas, primarily during the summer months. The meals provided through this program meet federal nutrition standards that include fruits and vegetables, milk, and key nutrients.

Poor nutrition during the summer months may contribute to lower performance in school, make children more prone to illness, and contribute to other health issues.

Latina_ChildObesity_560_292SFSP can help families ensure that their children eat healthy food during June, July, and August. Any child attending a school that provides breakfast and lunch can participate at the full-price, reduced-price, or free levels, depending on income. After-school and summer programs in low-income areas can receive funding to provide free meals to all children attending the school.

The benefits of these programs are many, yet currently they only serve a fraction of children who need access to healthy meals. The programs that run during the summer months reach only one in eight low-income children who qualify, and the School Breakfast Program reaches only half of those who receive school lunches. We can do better than this. There are steps we can take to build participation and make sure more children benefit from these nutrition programs.

Child  in the gardenFirst, more after-school and summer programs need to participate in the nutrition programs.  Typically, participation requirements are broad: eligible programs include those located in areas where 50 percent or more of children qualify for free or reduced-price school meals, and any school, local government agency, or private nonprofit that meets the eligibility requirements and can follow the program rules.

The Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) provides information and materials that can help organizations start and maintain successful summer programs. Other materials including application guidelines and forms can be found on the U.S. Department of Agriculture website.

NCLR works to improve nutrition in the Latino community by increasing access to federal food assistance programs, resources, and education that ensure families can meet at the dinner table for a healthy meal. Our work with FRAC promotes school breakfast, after-school, and summer meals to Latino communities throughout the United States. This partnership is supported by the ConAgra Foods Foundation and includes three other national partners: the Afterschool Alliance, the National Recreation and Park Association, and the National League of Cities.

Want Latino Students to Succeed? Help Them Start the Day Right

fruits-and-veggies_largeWith Mother’s Day around the corner, we would do well to remember a piece of advice that mothers have given their children for years: eating breakfast is the best way to start your day.

Teachers echo this sentiment, knowing firsthand how hard it is for children to pay attention when they are hungry. For some families, a rushed morning schedule means children don’t eat before they head to school. For others, a tight budget means there simply isn’t enough food for breakfast every day.

A study by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) examines participation in the School Breakfast Program, which provides free and reduced-cost morning meals to children from low-income and poor families. The study suggests that this program is underutilized, despite the fact that nine out of 10 schools offering free lunches also offer free breakfasts. For every 100 children enrolled in the School Lunch Program, only about 53 also receive a free breakfast.

An NCLR policy brief shows that Latinos make up a large share of children (more than one-third!) who are eligible for free or low-cost school meals but are not receiving them. Barriers include lack of language access or transportation, and concerns or confusion about application requirements. Given that school-based meals increase children’s energy and help them take in sufficient nutrients, it is of great concern that so many qualified Latino children who need free meals are missing out.

ACAdiabetesblog_pic1_resizedThe FRAC study highlights best practices that schools use to help more children start the day off right. Schools with the highest participation rates make breakfast easy and convenient: they provide classroom delivery for meals eaten during morning announcements, grab-and-go bagged meals to be eaten on the run, and a “second chance” breakfast service after the first period of class.

Even better are the schools that offer free breakfast to all students, although this is a benefit offered primarily by large schools with a majority low-income student body. Families at these schools do not have to worry about requirements or fill out paperwork, nor do their children need to arrive early in order to eat—breakfast is free and built into the school day for all students. Local news reports highlight the benefits of universal free breakfast service, including improved behavior and attention in the classroom.

We urge schools to follow these best practices and read FRAC’s study to learn how to improve participation, streamline the enrollment process, and offer free breakfasts to all students. It is imperative that school administrators, counselors, teachers, and anyone else who works with parents and children communicate in a culturally competent manner as they enroll more children in the School Breakfast Program. The application is available in Spanish, too.

NCLR considers the school breakfast and lunch programs crucial for Latino children, many of whom already face challenges in school. We must make use of every tool available to help Latino students succeed.

How We Can Encourage Kids to Make Healthy Food Choices

Last fall at Thomas Jefferson Middle School, in the heart of Arlington County, Virginia, students rallied around their beloved garden when it was threatened by potential new construction that would have paved over the small plot of land on which they grow vegetables for the Arlington Food Assistance Center. Arlington magazine called it “a little garden with big impact” and chronicled the impression this garden has made on the students, one-third of whom are Hispanic. They had never grown vegetables before and had a limited palate when it came to eating them.

Children are known for turning up their noses at vegetables, yet eating nutrient-rich, high-fiber produce is critical to maintaining good health, keeping up energy levels, and preventing childhood obesity, which is reaching record numbers in the U.S. More than 38 percent of Latinos between the ages of two and 19 are overweight or obese, leading to increased risks for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and breathing problems.

The momentum behind prioritizing childhood nutrition is growing. Research shows how important good nutrition is to children’s health and their ability to do well in school. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act seeks to improve nutrition for millions of children. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has issued new nutrition standards that boost the amount of fruit and vegetables in its Child Nutrition Programs.

CCSS_boys_303x197NCLR joins with the USDA and the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) to urge more families to participate in federal child nutrition programs that provide healthy meals in school to children from low-income families. Many Latino kids who are eligible for these important programs do not participate in them because their parents may not know about them or do not know how to enroll.

USDA offers information and an application form in many languages, including Spanish. Eligible children can obtain, at no cost, breakfast, an afternoon meal, and snacks in school every day, in addition to lunch. FRAC has more information available in English and Spanish.

Thanks to the new USDA nutrition standards, students may be offered smoothies made with yogurt and fresh or frozen fruit. They may see salad bars in schools and even a baked potato bar or side salad options. Protein from meat, beans, and dairy is also an important part of school meals, but it takes a back seat to produce. Breakfast and after-school meals and snacks are just as nutritious as school lunches, featuring whole grains, fresh produce, and foods low in sodium and sugar. The afternoon snacks and meals provided through the USDA have been shown to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables, milk, and key nutrients.

LatinoBoy_messyhairHow can we encourage children to make healthy choices whether they are at home, at school, or in an out-of-school program? Here are some ideas for parents and other caregivers:

  • Serve fruits and vegetables (fresh, frozen, or canned) as options instead of cake, cookies, candy and chips.
  • Offer water as the preferred drink option during snack times instead of juices, punch boxes, or soda.
  • Reinforce messages about good health by ensuring children get daily exercise that includes age-appropriate fitness activities.
  • Demonstrate strong social support for healthy behaviors.

The student gardeners at Thomas Jefferson Middle School have spoken passionately about keeping their treasured garden now that they have discovered the joys of green beans and okra. It doesn’t take growing vegetables to become committed to healthy eating, though. With high nutrition standards in our school meals programs, students nationwide can become fans of green leafy veggies, fruit smoothies, and other delicious, wholesome, and nutritious foods!

This blog post was made possible with a grant from ConAgra Foundation through FRAC.

Summer Food Programs Help Children Stay Healthy and Active

Frac_Graphic14-2-01 (2)There are some foods that automatically bring summer to mind: sweet corn on the cob, grinning slices of watermelon, fat blueberries. Some children, though, do not anticipate the delicious produce that summertime brings; instead, they worry about having enough food to eat once the school year ends and the cafeteria that provides them with meals is closed for more than two months.

That’s where the Summer Nutrition Programs come in. A safety net for struggling families, the programs provide millions of low-income children with the meals they need to stay healthy and grow…and enjoy the summer. Last year, we saw the biggest boost in a decade in the number of low-income students who received meals through the summer meal programs. A new report released by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) finds that summer meal participation nationally reached nearly three million students on an average day in July of 2013, up 161,000 children or 5.7% from 2012.

This week marks USDA’s Summer Food Awareness Week, which aims to raise the visibility of the programs nationwide, and is part of the USDA “Summer Food Rocks” campaign that features an online site locator and search tool. The National Hunger Hotline helps connect families to local resources that provide food for children. That number is 1-866-3HUNGRY (1-866-348-6479) and the number for information in Spanish is 1-877-8HAMBRE (1-877-842-6273).

We must all work together to make sure that families know about the Summer Nutrition Programs and where their children can go for summer meals. Providing adequate nutrition during the summer, along with structured activities often held in conjunction with the meals, helps prevent learning loss and allows students to stay healthy and active so they return to school in the fall ready to learn.

Everyone has a role to play:

  •  Elected Officials. When you’re out in the community, speak up about this program and include information on your website and in newsletters. Stop by a summer meal site and have lunch with some of your youngest constituents. Even better—work with partners to increase the number of sites where children can go for summer meals.
  • Schools. Sponsor a summer meal site! By opening your school to the community for the summer meal programs, you can help ensure that there are enough sites in places with plenty of kids. Also, let parents at your school know about the Summer Nutrition Programs and where they can find sites nearby that will provide food for their children.
  • Parks. Everyone enjoys summer in the park! Parks and community centers are ideal summer meal sites because they have outdoor space for physical activities and a variety of enrichment programs. Local parks departments can become sponsors of the programs.

No child should spend the summer hungry. Check out the summer food programs at the USDA website and see what you can do to help connect children to the meals they need!