Ensuring that Every Child has Access to School Meals

Latino boy eatingThrough the Child Nutrition and Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Reauthorization Act, Congress has the opportunity to invest in the health and well-being of millions of America’s children and families, including Latinos. These programs should strengthen, not weaken, the critical child nutrition programs authorized under the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. To achieve this, these programs must continue to promote opportunities for children to access healthy meals and snacks at school, in after-school programs, and during the summer months. These programs are critical for Latino children to lead healthy, productive lives.

Millions of children, including 4.7 million Latino children living in food insecure households, count on the child nutrition programs to act as a buffer against hunger throughout the year. The National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program hold particular importance for the Latino community, as seven million Latino children receive free and reduced-price school meals every day, accounting for one-third of all participants. It is critical that all children, especially those at risk of going hungry, have consistent access to healthy, nutritious food at school.

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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 to Improve Participation in Federal Child Nutrition Programs

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Getting more children to participate in federal child nutrition programs—the School Breakfast Program, the National School Lunch Program, the Summer Food Service Program, and afternoon snacks and meals provided through the Child and Adult Care Food Program—can help support our collective goal of encouraging healthier nutrition practices and physical activity among children.

With implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), there are new opportunities to meet these goals and improve health outcomes for children, particularly through the newly established Prevention and Public Health Fund.  The Fund is the nation’s first mandatory funding stream dedicated to improving our nation’s public health.  It is offering grants through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to support early child care and education obesity prevention programs.  Continue reading